By STEVE MASCORD
HE scored arguably the greatest ever World Cup try in one of the competition’s most epic contests, he is just out of his teens – and he played on with a suspected broken leg.
Shaun Johnson broke 67,000 hearts by dashing over to the left of the posts with just 20 second left to keep New Zealand’s Cup defence alive at Wembley Stadium on Saturday but winger Roger Tuivasa-Sheck was the the true star of an exhilarating 20-18 win over England.
Legendary commentator Ray French called his first-half touchdown, which saw ball propelled from one touchline to the other, where it was flicked in-field from mid-air, out of bounds – as the best World Cup try since Clive Sullivan in 1972.
The excitable 20-year-old left Wembley Stadium in a surgical boot and team doctor Simon Mayhew said he may have broken a bone in his leg late in the match.
“I put my leg out straight and someone landed on it – I thought I heard a crack,” Sydney Roosters’ Tuivasa-Sheck said.
“I just had to find something to fight on and keep going. I just looked around at the boys and that’s what keeps you going.
“The Word Cup final, it’s something that comes only once a lifetime so hopefully I get right for it.”
The injury to the competition’s leading tryscorer wasn’t the only Kiwis buzzkill after a contest for which new superlatives will probably have to be concocted, England tendering a top draw performance only to be denied in soul-destroying circumstances.
Captain Simon Mannering told one interviewer it had been “our worst performance of the tournament” and hero Johnson reckoned: “at times it felt like we were just throwing the World Cup away”.
“I was well off the mark … that’s why it is mixed emotions,” said Warrior Johnson, who described the try as ‘by far’ the biggest moment of his career.
“Defensively I wasn’t there and that’s what I’ve built my game on this whole tournament. I’ve been pretty good defensively and I guess if wasn’t for that try at the end, it would be a bitter taste.
“It would be pretty hard to look at myself if we had to go home.”
After a dismal showing against France, England were not expected to seriously test a Kiwis outfit that had topped the try- and pointscoring charts in the pool and quarter-final stages.
But after an early disallowed try to Kiwi Issac Luke, powerful England rolled down the lusg Wembley turf and Sam Burgess’ one-handed pass gave Sean O’Loughlin his 16th minute try.
This was converted and later complemented by a Kevin Sinfield penalty goal, before the RTS Express put the finishing touches on a try for the ages.
Jason Nightingale, Sam Kasiano, Kieran Foran and Issac Luke all handled before Dean Whare scooped the Steeden back to Tuivasa-Sheck when the Penrith centre’s entire body was outside the field of play – and he was facing the other way.
Even the England players, standing in their own in-goal watching the video referee decide, must have been tempted to applaud.
Johnson added a penalty goal to bring up an 8-8 scoreline that Kiwis coach Stephen Kearney admitted was flattering.
Tuivasa-Sheck’s footwork delivered a 43rd minute touchdown to the Kiwis; during this period, the tourists received five consecutive penalties. But after the run was broken, half Sinfield put cenre Kallum Watkins over to tie the scores; the captain missed a relatively simple conversion attempt.
Then came Sam Burgess’s bullocking try from close range in the 68th minute, the touthdown that shoulder have secured England a place in the World Cup final.
The Kiwis looked to have been spooked later, Kevin Locke lobbing a ball over winger Nightingale’s head, but after a high tackle penalty and with Sinfield rushing up out of the line, Johnson stepped his way over to the left of the posts and serenely slotted home the winning points.
Kearney joked he was “under the desk” as the 11th hour drama played itself out. He said the areas in which New Zealand were deficient were “not had to fix” and was hopeful of Tuivasa-Sheck and Manu Vatuvei each being available for the Old Trafford showdown with Australia.
Rival Steve MacNamara had the good grace to tell a television audience of millions, within minutes of a crushing defeat, “that game put rugby league on the map.”
NEW ZEALAND 20 (Roger Tuivasa-Sheck 2, Shaun Johnson tries; Johnson 4 goals) beat ENGLAND 18 (Sean O’Loughlin, Sam Burgess, Kallum Watkins tries; Kevin Sinfield 3 goals) at Wembley Stadium. Referee: Ben Cummins (Australia). Crowd: 67,525.