Kearney says Kiwis must improve

Photo: SMP Images


New Zealand coach Stephen Kearney concedes his side will need to find major improvement to topple Australia in the Rugby League World Cup final after they were "fortunate" to down England 20-18 in a thrilling semi-final at Wembley on Saturday.


Kearney hailed his team's never-say-die attitude after they snatched victory in the last minute of a scintillating match England had dominated for long periods, but lamented the fact they faced such a scenario.


Playmaker Shaun Johnson evaded a Kevin Sinfield tackle to jink over for a try he converted with the last kick of the game.


The result left Kearney and captain Simon Mannering satisfied but wary they'll have to step up another level when they play the final on Saturday at Old Trafford.


"I was always confident that if we had the footy with a minute to go and we were down by four points we had the ability to come up with something," said Kearney, who was at the helm of New Zealand when they posted a 34-20 upset win over the Kangaroos in the 2008 World Cup final.


"We didn't play real well but we hung in there and we gave ourselves a chance with a minute to go. That's a real positive.


"Take nothing away from their performance, England were outstanding."


Kearney joked that he had not particularly enjoyed the 79 minutes preceding Johnson's decisive intervention.


"I think we feel fortunate to come up with the play," he said.


"The opportunity presented itself and Shaun was good enough to take it, but we need to be better. There were parts of the game that were difficult to watch."


Skipper Mannering rued his side's lack of rhythm against an England side inspired by Sam Burgess.


"We didn't build much pressure throughout the whole game," Mannering said.


"They played really well and built a lot of momentum ... but luckily enough Shaun came up with the big play."


Mannering admitted the match had been tougher than their pool matches and quarter-final, in which the Kiwis were rarely troubled in racking up 186 points, with just 34 against.


"It was a bit of a step-up today," he said.


"We were just off the mark a touch.


"We're going to have to be better next week. We'll have to be good throughout the whole game."


England coach Steve McNamara said his team were "absolutely distraught".


"We did a lot of things right in this game," McNamara said.


England prop Sam Burgess was man of the match.


"I'm very disappointed for the team," he said.


"We put a lot of hard work into this tournament and we feel we've not got what we deserved."


**


Billy Slater's tireless recovery efforts could pay off with the Kangaroos fullback looking increasingly likely to return from injury in the Rugby League World Cup final.


Slater admits he thought his tournament was over after suffering a recurrence of a left knee injury in last week's quarter-final victory over the United States.


The Melbourne Storm star sat out Saturday's 64-0 semi-final win over Fiji but his recovery has exceeded expectations and Kangaroos medical staff now consider it more likely than not he will be fit for next Saturday's showdown with New Zealand at Old Trafford.


Slater stresses he won't put his hand up to play unless he is 100 per cent fit but the 30-year-old is desperate to be part of the side that will look to avenge a loss to the Kiwis in the 2008 final.


"The way it's improved over the last seven days has caught me by surprise to be honest," Slater said on Saturday.


"At the start of the week I was giving myself no chance, whereas now I've done everything possible to get right for the next game and I'll do everything I can in the next seven days to be right.


"... I'm going to give myself the best opportunity to get there but I'm not going to play if I don't think I can play properly.


"It's a big occasion and I'd love to be part of it but I know how important it is to this team and to our country. I'll be fit if I get there."


Kangaroos' physiotherapist Tony Ayoub said the fact Slater was any chance at all of playing was a testament to the player's dedication.


Since suffering the injury, Slater has received up to three treatment sessions and day and stuck to a strict regime of icing his knee up to eight times a day, mostly in his hotel room.


Slater surprised Ayoub by completing a treadmill running drill at 15kph on Friday, but crucial to his hopes of playing will be when he tests his knee during intense training on Tuesday.


"I (initially) gave him a 50-50 chance (of being fit) but it's far better than that now," Ayoub said.


"You've got to give the kid credit, he works hard. He's certainly a professional."


While Kangaroos players have played down talk of redemption or revenge, Slater would be desperate to get a chance to avenge the 2008 loss in Brisbane, where his infamous wayward pass helped the Kiwis score a shock victory.


He is also one of a host of senior Australian players who are facing what is likely their last chance to add a World Cup title to their CVs.


Kangaroos coach Tim Sheens will give Slater until the end of the week to prove his fitness and, should he do so, Greg Inglis would shift back into the centres.


That would likely mean Brent Tate making way from the starting side but it's believed Sheens is considering using the North Queensland veteran off the interchange bench.