New Zealand centre Steve Matai suffered a potentially serious neck injury during their 36-24 Rugby League World Cup victory over England in Newcastle, Australia.
|Benji Marshall charges forward [GALLO/GETTY]
Matai was put in a neck brace, carried off on a stretcher and taken to hospital for precautionary scans complaining of neck and shoulder pain after he was squashed by teammate Greg Eastwood in a 29th minute tackle.
It proved the turning point that galvanised the Kiwis as they turned a 24-8 deficit around with five unanswered tries to claim the win in front of 15,145 fans.
Skipper Benji Marshall and fullback Lance Hohaia ran riot as winger Manu Vatuvei scored four tries, the first such feat in World Cup history, with his three in the second half all set up by the Kiwis' pair of playmakers.
But the impressive win was soured by Matai's injury as play was held up for several minutes in a dramatic moment of an action packed game.
The Manly star has battled serious neck and shoulder injuries for at least two seasons with bulging discs in his neck and chipped bones in his shoulder hampering his performances throughout 2008.
He put off shoulder surgery to play in the World Cup but this latest injury has raised serious questions about his immediate playing future.
The cruel twist for the Kiwis is that the win is likely to have no influence on their World Cup fate.
Semi final rehersal
New Zealand and England are almost certain to meet again in a Brisbane semi-final next week unless Papua New Guinea execute an unlikely upset of Australia by more than two points in Townsville on Sunday.
While the loss of Matai will hurt the Kiwis, the glorified dress rehearsal would serve both teams well after confidence-sapping, heavy losses to Australia in recent weeks.
England - despite resting stars Leon Pryce, James Roby and James Graham - dominated the first half and led 24-14 at the break after a double to halfback Rob Burrow and superb individual four-pointers to hooker Mickey Higham and five-eighth Martin Gleeson.
But they went to sleep in the second half as the Kiwis took total control through Marshall, Hohaia, halfback Nathan Fien and "The Beast" Vatuvei.
Vatuvei's tries in the 47th and 55th minutes levelled scores at 24-all before Issac Luke milked a penalty in the 69th minute to give New Zealand their first lead of the game.
Fien sealed the result in the 75th minute with a try that resulted from Marshall putting Bronson Harrison into space before Vatuvei scored his fourth in the 78th minute.
|Manu Vatuvei crosses for one of his four tries [GALLO/GETTY]
New Zealand doctor Simon Mayhew said Matai's injury was nothing like his ongoing issues and could be as serious as a fractured neck.
"He had searing, burning pain from his neck right down to his arm and localised pain in the centre of his neck," said Mayhew.
"He has never had anything like that before.
"If we moved him and he has an unstable fracture then he could be a quadriplegic.
"The hope is it is just a sprain and all is good." Kiwis coach Stephen Kearney was impressed with his side's second half performance after delivering an "animated" half time dressing down to his troops.
"It showed what we are capable of," Kearney said of the second half.
"We will take plenty out of tonight but we know we are up against it next week."
England coach Tony Smith was furious his side fell apart and said some players would face the axe if they survive to face the Kiwis next week.
"Very disappointing. I'm a bit angry about it. We are all angry with it," said Smith.
"We have got to get angrier and make sure things like this don't happen again."
Kiwis skipper Benji Marshall meanwhile slammed the English players as "disrespectful" after they formed a huddle inside their own half instead of facing New Zealand's pre-game haka.
"To be honest I thought it was a little bit disrespectful," said Marshall.
"If that's how they want to approach the game that is their choice."
But Smith defended his players, adding some could find the war dance offensive.
"Where we come from we get in a huddle. That is what we do, whether people are doing the haka or not," said Smith.
"When our players want to pump each other up that is what we do.”