It was tight, tense and at times terrible, but for just long enough in the middle of the second half England got it right.
Clinging on to a two-point lead in the deciding Test against a New Zealand team entitled before this tour to call themselves the best in the world, England scrambled over the winning line thanks to key players digging deep when they had to.
Elliot Whitehead, who is to join his English team-mate Josh Hodgson at Canberra next season, drew a penalty for a high tackle. From that attack, John Bateman changed the angle with a strong run and Whitehead scored his second try of the game.
Almost immediately, and after a harsh penalty against the Kiwis at a play-the-ball, Sean O’Loughlin, the England captain later named as player of the series, went through a hole that appeared in the Kiwi defence and scored far too easily for such a defence-minded series.
That should have been that, but England still don’t do anything the easy way. Two brilliant Kiwi tries re-opened all the possibilities and kept the tension bubbling to the end.
Jason Nightingale’s instinctive back-handed pass as he was being herded towards touch laid on a score for Roger Tuivasa-Sheck, and Kodi Nikorima’s visionary cross-kick created another for Jordan Kahu. Isaac Luke missed both conversions, but England had to defend into the last seconds of a series in which they have been forced to do a lot of defending before they got their hands on the Baskerville Shield.
It was a victory that required some readjustments. As expected, it was two young Wigan players who paid the price for England’s failings so far, with George Williams and Joe Burgess dropped for the Test on their home ground, and Matty Smith and Jermaine McGillvary coming in.
Smith’s nomination as man of the match might have overestimated his influence, but he certainly improved his side’s last-tackle options. McGillvary was put under heavy pressure and dealt with it capably.
England warmed up in T-shirts supporting the critically ill rugby league writer Gary Carter.
New Zealand were under pressure for most of the opening 10 minutes, though England scored only two points – from a Gareth Widdop penalty – during that period.
New Zealand had less ball but looked more dangerous with it until the 28th minute, when Smith prodded through a kick that took a deflection and sat up perfectly for Whitehead to claim his first try.
That looked like giving England a decent half-time lead until Nightingale produced an acrobatic effort just before the break. The third quarter was a slog in deteriorating conditions until England seized the spoils.
The job of the England coach, Steve McNamara, would have been on the line had his side lost. He said: “New Zealand have been the No 1 side and have physically dominated for the last two years. To beat them is a great credit to these players.”
England: Hardaker; McGillvary, Watkins, Bateman, Hall; Widdop, Smith; Graham, Hodgson, Hill, Farrell, Whitehead, O’Loughlin.
Replacements: Roby, Burgess, Cooper, Ferres.
New Zealand:Tuivasa-Sheck; Kenny-Dowell, Kahu, Whare, Nightingale; Hiku, Nikorima; Bromwich, Luke, Moa, Harris, Proctor, Blair.
Replacements: Matulino, Brown, Glenn, Taupau.
Referee: Ben Thaler (England).
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