It was the end of an era. The coming year will show whether it is the start of another. Great Britain ended their last series on home soil – it will be England who carry the banner in future – with a whitewash of the Kiwis that few would have predicted a month ago.
It was a different sort of victory – one that had to be worked for after the Kiwis got off to a flyer to establish a 12-point lead – but it was also a victory which underlined the qualities that Tony Smith has already imprinted on his side. They started out trying to play expansive rugby and saw it apparently blow up in their faces, but they stuck to their guns to take command either side of half-time.
New Zealand were a far more formidable proposition than in their first two matches, especially at half-back where the recall of Ben Roberts and Jeremy Smith gave them much more penetration. It all made for a genuine Test and a thoroughly intriguing one.
Where the Test started to be won was with the introduction of the St Helens prop James Graham, who scored the first British try with a ferocious first carry. Given the importance of substitutes in the modern game, he shapes up as a major asset for the years ahead.
The other outstanding contributors included Rob Burrow, who has come of age in this series as a world-class scrum-half and scored a typically elusive try, and Sean O'Loughlin. The Wigan back-rower has sometimes looked weighed down by responsibility during his club's recent troubles, but he has had an excellent series.
"He's been terrific all the way through," said Smith. "A very good professional and a pleasure to coach."
Apart from a defensive work-rate that is taken as read, O'Loughlin has also produced the big plays that defeat defences. On his home ground he created two tries with imaginative interventions – an offload to Keith Senior and a deep kick for Danny McGuire.
Senior's try helped the veteran centre celebrate another good series. It was easy to surmise that he was only there because there are, as yet, no comparable younger centres coming through, but he more than justified his selection.
The same could be said of the old man of the pack. Given Adrian Morley's problems with his tackling technique his inclusion carried certain risks, but he has been a mighty presence in the forwards. "Sensational" was what Smith called his effort over the three games and that is not a word the coach throws around lightly.
Smith gives short shrift to any attempt to down-grade Britain's achievement by stressing the number of players missing from the New Zealand team. "We deserve more credit than that," he said, with a note of irritation.
His Kiwi counterpart, Gary Kemble, who has been busily peddling that line, was surely whistling in the dark when he said that he wanted to keep the job. His side regained some of their pride at the JJB but his claim that they had "almost" won the series, because two of their defeats had been relatively narrow, spun off into the realms of the specious.
The record books will note only that in the last Great Britain versus New Zealand series in this country, the Kiwis were beaten three times. By any objective measurement it is the men in the familiar white shirt with the blue and red chevron who are the No 2 team in the world once more.
"We're not getting carried away, not saying that we're going to go out and beat Australia," said Smith. "But we've been tested by the Kiwis and we've come out on top."
For now, that represents progress and success.
Great Britain: Tries Wilkin, Senior, Hodgson, Burrow, McGuire; Goals Burrow 4.
New Zealand: Tries Stanley 2, Whaturia, Tuiaki; Goals J Smith 3.
Great Britain: Wellens (St Helens), Hodgson (Huddersfield), Gleeson (Warrington), Senior (Leeds), Gardner (St Helens), McGuire (Leeds), Burrow (Leeds), Morley (Warrington), Clarke (Warrington), Peacock (Leeds), Ellis (Leeds), O'Loughlin (Wigan), Wilkin (St Helens). Substitutes used: Graham (St Helens) Jones-Buchanan (Leeds), Robey (St Helens) Yeaman (Hull).
New Zealand: Perrett (Sydney City), Stanley (St George Ilawarra), Toopi (Leeds), Whatuira (Wests Tigers), Tuiaki (Wests Tigers), Roberts (Bulldogs), J Smith (Parramatta), Rapira (NZ Warriors), Halatau (Wests Tigers), Asotasi (South Sydney), Anderson (Warriors), J Smith (Melbourne), Mannering (Warriors). Substitutes used: Hohaia (Warriors), MoiMoi (Parramatta), Lauaki (Warriors), Lima (Melbourne).
Referee: T Archer (Australia).Reuse content