England test looms for Kiwis
ENGLAND are different, the Kiwis remain very much the same. That's the overall impression from the weekend's Wembley double header.
The Kiwis will have their hands full with England in Hull this weekend. On form, there is every chance their Four Nations title defence will end prematurely at the hands of the hosts.
The Kiwis weren't dreadful against a modest Welsh team. They started proficiently, forced a bunch of repeat sets and methodically clocked up points. They did, however, get worse the longer the match went on. Where they might have been expected to be more fluent, the Kiwis were disjointed. Where they needed to be decisive, they were hesitant and confused. They scrambled well to keep the Welsh scoreless, but there was precious little fire on display.
Of most concern to coach Stephen Kearney will be a left edge that remains poor despite a reshuffle where Gerard Beale replaced Kalifa Faifai Loa on the wing. Beale scored a couple of tries and looked competent enough, but centre Lewis Brown was lost.
Brown's confidence looks shot and it's hard to see a looming date with Jack Reed and the strapping Ryan Hall doing much to lift it.
Kearney has resisted the temptation to shift defensive linchpin Simon Mannering to centre. It will be interesting to see if that resistance continues this week - although the loss of prop Sam McKendry to a broken jaw may weigh on his thinking there. If Adam Blair shifts to prop to replace McKendry, Mannering's direct approach may be required in the pack.
Of equal concern to Kearney will be England's new-found fondness of open, expansive play, boosted by the recruitment of former Junior Kiwi Rangi Chase. A fellow graduate of Keebra Park High's academy and a former teammate and flatmate of the Kiwis captain, Chase is a Benji Marshall clone. His ability to tease defenders out of the line with his footwork and then punish them with his hands bears a spooky resemblance to Marshall. So too his precocious fondness for the million dollar - or should that be pound - play. And just like Marshall, they don't always come off. Chase's ridiculous kick from a 20m tap restart cost his side a try and drove a dagger into England's fragile self-belief. The intercept he threw to Johnathan Thurston late in the game sealed their fate. But in between he was very good.
England are a threat all right - much more so than in 2009, when they soundly thrashed the Kiwis, who had already battered Australia.
It's often felt about the Kiwis that they produce their best when their backs are against the wall. Well fellas, that would be damp British concrete you can feel pressing against your backsides right now.