ENGLAND WILL take a one-nil series lead to Anfield next Sunday after a hugely encouraging 18-16 win over New Zealand at KCOM Stadium.
The game wasn’t a classic in terms of quality, but it was a proper Test match, close, hard fought and with some niggle.
There were shades of the 2013 World Cup semi-final when Shaun Johnson had the ball close to England’s line with seconds remaining, but this time they held out for a crucial and morale-boosting success.
It was a resilient effort from the home team who trailed three times.
New Zealand will certainly expect to get better as the series goes on and England will need to be sharper on attack when the sides meet again in Liverpool next weekend.
Their kicking game wasn’t effective and England looked disorganised at times, for example when Chris Hill offloaded to Josh Hodgson who had his back turned.
There were some loose passes, but England muscled up against a big pack and gave everything in defence.
Overall, it was a hugely creditable win considering the number of first-choice players unavailable.
England’s start was spectacular, Sam Tomkins going over for the opening try inside three minutes. George Williams’ kick was snatched from Jordan Rapana’s grasp by Tommy Makinson who surged towards the line and offloaded. Elliott Whitehead kept the ball alive to Jonny Lomax and he did likewise to send Tomkins through.
Makinson did an excellent job on the left-wing and Whitehead was another top performer, winning the players’ man-of-the-match vote.
The lead lasted until the 12th minute when the Kiwis scored a fine try of their own, following a penalty, halves Kodi Nikorima and Johnson combining sweetly to send Esan Marsters over.
England had an escape moments later when Johnson’s kick was taken by Makinson who offloaded on his own line to Connor. It looked like the Hull man had dropped it and referee Robert Hicks signalled a try after Rapana fell on the ball, but replays revealed a knock-on by the winger.
It was nip and tuck until eight minutes before the break when Jermaine McGillvary knocked on and from the scrum impressive hooker Brandon Smith fed Nikorima and his delayed pass put Dallin Watene-Zelezniak in. Johnson kicked his second conversion.
Watene-Zelezniak turned villain on with 53 seconds left in the half. Connor slid over from Whitehead’s pass and Hicks indicated a try, but video referee Thaler ruled Connor had been fouled by Watene-Zelezniak, who slid in with his knees to prevent him getting the ball down.
A penalty try was awarded and – rather than having a kick from the touchline – Connor squared the scores from in front of the posts.
Johnson kicked the Kiwis ahead for the second time 10 minutes into the second half after back-to-back penalties, the second for interference by Hill on the stand-off. It was all square soon afterwards when Connor booted his third goal after a foul by Johnson on Whitehead.
Another Johnson penalty, after England were caught offside, edged the Kiwis ahead of the third time with 19 minutes left.
With Johnson calling the shots the Kiwis looked to be getting on top, but England struck out of the blue with a superb try six minutes later.
John Bateman got an offload away to his Wigan clubmate Oliver Gildart on half-way and the centre skipped brilliantly past Watene-Zelezniak to score what proved to be the decisive try. Connor couldn’t convert, his only miss, but England defended strongly in the final stages to see out the win.
England: Lomax, Makinson, Connor, Gildart, McGillvary, Williams, Tomkins, T Burgess, Hodgson, Graham, Bateman, Whitehead, O’Loughlin. Subs Thompson, Hill, G Burgess, Clark.
New Zealand: Watene-Zelezniak, Maumalo, Marsters, Manu, Rapana, Johnson, Nikorima, J Bromwich, Smith, Waerea-Hargreaves, Proctor, Liu, Fisher-Harris. Subs K Bromwich, Ah Mau, Taupau, Tapine.
Referee: Robert Hicks (England).