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New Zealand had only to lose yesterday's Tri-Nations match against Great Britain by less than 23 points to make the final.
Instead, they were humbled by a margin of 26 ? losing 38-12 ? by a passionate Great Britain team that has left every possible permutation open for the tournament's November 27 decider.
The dejected Kiwis never recovered from a devastating first-half effort by the British, who stormed into a 26-0 lead, and despite their late efforts to peg back the difference, fell well short.
New Zealand won't even be able to watch the Great Britain-Australia match on Sunday morning ? they will be returning to Britain from their test against France.
"I think we will actually be in flight ? the flight was booked by the British Rugby League," coach Brian McClennan said.
But the Kiwis know they could have booked their slot at Huddersfield. And a despondent McClennan made no excuses for his side's shocking performance.
"I know some people might think we probably don't deserve to be in a final, because of the way we went in that game," he said afterward. "But I think our past games have shown we are a team that has the ability to play some good football. I hope people realise that one bad game doesn't make us a bad team."
Kiwis halfback Stacey Jones was almost unable to comprehend what had gone so badly wrong.
"They beat us everywhere," Jones, who made yet another comeback to try and guide the Kiwis to the final, said. "I guess till we look at what happened, we can't comment too much: but I guess we were totally outplayed. We can't point the finger at anyone but ourselves."
It was the combination of a lack of urgency, some sloppy line defence and the pride of a British team that had to win to stay alive that stunned the Kiwis early in the game. Roared on by the almost 20,000 crowd at Huddersfield, Britain took the lead in the fifth minute with a try by prop Stuart Fielden, then added three more before halftime, two of them superb efforts from winger Brian Carney.
New Zealand had Shontayne Hape sinbinned just before the break, and he was on the sidelines as the British stretched the lead to 32-0 with a long-range try from Chev Walker.
Winger Jake Webster scored New Zealand's first try on 49 minutes, but they were still outside the necessary margin of defeat and the gap became bigger at 38-4 when British video referee Robert Connolly awarded a try to Keith Senior when it appeared he had touched the corner flag in Webster's tackle.
The Kiwis have had little luck with video decisions throughout this tournament. Connolly also failed to award a penalty when Louis Anderson had the ball stripped over the tryline, and said second rower David Solomona had been held up.
In the final quarter, McClennan sent out a message that the Kiwis had to score some points. It gave them some urgency, with Solomona denied, before Ali Lauiti'iti scored in the 71st minute, Webster was held just short, then took his next opportunity in the corner two minutes from time. Had Jones converted both, the Kiwis would have been home.
A visibly angry captain Ruben Wiki said: "We're still tight. We will work on what we did tonight, and take it out on the French."
More info: www.tri-nations.com.au Discussion: Tri-Nations Forum at http://forums.leagueunlimited.com/forumdisplay.php?f=130