The Kiwis narrowly avoided an embarrassing defeat to fourth-seeded Toa Samoa in Whangarei on Saturday afternoon, edging out 14-12 winners to book themselves a spot in the November 15 Four Nations final.
In front of 16,912 fans at Toll Stadium in Whangarei, the plucky Samoans outplayed the Kiwis for the first 60 minutes of the game but ultimately found themselves run down by a late effort from the home side which regained the lead in the match only in the dying minutes.
The New Zealanders looked a far cry from the side which dismantled Australia 30-12 only seven days earlier, and the poor effort will have coach Stephen Kearney sweating ahead of the clash with England next weekend.
If not for some big individual efforts in the closing minutes of the clash the Kiwis would have found themselves with the unwanted tag of being the first ever team to lose to a fourth seed in the Four Nations.
The match started with a minute's silence for 17-year-old Warriors product Luke Tipene who passed away on the morning of the game.
In the early exchanges the Kiwis looked to exploit the Samoan edge defence with plenty of ball out wide, but it ended up seeing them concede first when Peta Hiku held his pass too long and delivered it right into the arms of a waiting Tautau Moga.
A late call-up for the Cowboys’ teammate Antonio Winterstein, Moga ran 80 metres to go over in the right corner. Tim Lafai was unable to add the extras.
The Kiwi response was swift.
After missing last week’s tournament opener through the suspension that also kept him out of the NRL Grand Final, Issac Luke made his presence felt when he crabbed across field and found Kieran Foran who ran a hard line to equalise.
Shaun Johnson made no mistake from in front to give the hosts a 6-4 lead.
Lacking the intensity and execution they showed in spades only a week ago against the world champions, the Kiwis looked clumsy with ball in hand.
Winger Manu Vatuvei fumbled the ball into touch twice within minutes, although the first came from a Shaun Kenny-Dowall bat-on that itself was ruled forward. They also stalled several attacking raids with poor dummy-half service and offload selection.
Brilliant vision from five-eighth Ben Roberts spawned a second Samoan try on 20 minutes; the former Kiwi international spotting the New Zealand line playing too high and delivering a precision grubber in behind the line for Daniel Vidot to score untouched.
About the only battle the Kiwis were winning was the fiery heavyweight spat between Vatuvei and Joey Leilua; the pair coming together in a heated exchange before Vatuvei delivered a crushing hit which shook the Newcastle centre – who had earlier delivered a bone-rattler on Foran that saw the Kiwi five-eighth favouring his ribs for the remainder of the match.
The Samoans took an unlikely 8-6 lead into the break, then a couple of penalties and a knock-on within the opening three minutes of the second half put the Kiwis under immense pressure. Leilua made them pay with a commanding run and huge fend which upended Kenny-Dowall, allowing him to go over in the right corner.
The Samoans had been the better team by far, but Lafai’s inability to add the extras meant they led by only 12-6 despite outscoring their rivals three tries to one.
For all the courage and discipline the Samoans were showcasing, the Kiwis’ class finally started to show in the final 20 minutes.
Fullback Tim Simona did well to stop a certain try when he jarred the ball from Simon Mannering’s grasp over the line, but a short time later the home side found an overlap on the left for Jason Nightingale to score his second of the tournament.
With four minutes left on the clock the Kiwis pulled out the big play when it counted.
After Ben Roberts was on hand to take a vital intercept from a loose pass, he handed it straight back with an ill-conceived offload on the same play. Shaun Johnson then played a pivotal role in a swift left-side move which eventually beat the Samoan cover defence and allowed Shaun Kenny-Dowall to go over and give the Kiwis a 14-12 lead.
Five-eighth Foran, still troubled by his battered ribs, closed the game out with a clever kick which allowed his teammates to trap Toa Samoa in-goal.
There was one late heart stutter in the final seconds when the impressive Leilua broke 60 metres downfield, but with referee Henry Perenara controversially ruling his offload travelled forward the play broke down as the final siren sounded.
Samoa coach Matt Parish must have left the field wondering what more his side have to do to get a win, after coming agonisingly close to victory – and scoring the same number of tries as their opponents – for the second week in a row.
The Kiwis meanwhile would be feeling relieved to have escaped a humiliating defeat only days after one of their best victories in recent memory.
Match details | Toll Stadium, Whangarei
Kiwis 14 (Kieran Foran, Jason Nightingale, Shaun Kenny-Dowall tries; Shaun Johnson conversion).
Toa Samoa 12 (Tautau Moga, Daniel Vidot, Joey Leilua tries).
Halftime: 8-6 Samoa.
Referee: Henry Perenara (New Zealand).
Kiwis | 1 Peta Hiku; 2 Jason Nightingale, 3 Dean Whare, 4 Shaun Kenny-Dowall, 5 Manu Vatuvei; 6 Kieran Foran, 7 Shaun Johnson; 8 Jesse Bromwich, 9 Issac Luke, 10 Adam Blair; 11 Simon Mannering (c), 12 Kevin Proctor; 13 Jason Taumalolo. Interchange: 14 Lewis Brown, 15 Suaia Matagi, 16 Martin Taupau, 17 Tohu Harris, 18 Bodene Thompson.
Toa Samoa | 1 Tim Simona; 20 Tautau Moga, 3 Tim Lafai, 4 Joey Leilua, 5 Daniel Vidot; 6 Ben Roberts, 7 Kyle Stanley; 8 Isaac Liu, 13 Josh McGuire, 10 David Fa'alogo (c); 11 Frank Pritchard, 12 Leeson Ah Mau; 16 Sauaso Sue. Interchange: 9 Pita Godinet, 14 Dunamis Lui, 17 Mose Masoe, 18 Dominique Peyroux.