On Sunday night in Hull they eventually won the first match of their three-Test series in some style, but only after they had toyed with more heartbreak at the hands of the Kiwis. It took the impact from the bench of the likes of James Roby, Tom Burgess and, most of all, two tries from Brett Ferres to swing the contest.
England were lucky to be in touch at half-time, but totally dominant from then on. Their coach, Steve McNamara, paid tribute to the way his team turned it around, but he will know as well as anyone that they will be unlikely to get away with equally bad starts in the remaining Tests in London and Wigan.
New Zealand had one of their key forwards, Adam Blair, passed fit to play after a calf injury, while England were unchanged after their farcical 80-point victory over France the previous weekend.
The Kiwis’ stand-in scrum-half Tuimoala Lolohea was the first to make his mark, supplying the pass from which Tohu Harris, the player dropped from the last World Cup to accommodate Sonny Bill Williams, went through a gap in a disorganised defensive line for a sixth-minute try.
They extended their lead 10 minutes later, Sam Moa barrelling his way over on the ground where he used to play his club rugby with Hull.
England desperately needed a lucky break and they got one just before midway in the half. The Kiwis clearly though that Zak Hardaker had knocked on, but in the video referees’ booth they ruled that the ball had come off his knee and Josh Hodgson’s try stood.
Gareth Widdop kicked the goal and England, more by luck than judgement, were only four points in arrears. That became six when Sean O’Loughlin, scandalously for such an experienced player, gave away a penalty for ball-stealing on the last tackle of a set.
It would have been no miscarriage of justice if England had gone further behind, but Jordan Kahu had a try disallowed for a debatable obstruction.
The home side immediately went to the other end where Ferres’ try-scoring instincts allowed him to capitalise on a lovely link-up between Widdop and George Williams. Widdop put over the conversion and England, almost despite themselves, were level at half-time – and would have been ahead if Liam Farrell had not been grounded inches from the line.
McNamara’s side began the second half far better than the first, drawing a penalty from Issac Luke that enabled them to take the lead for the first time. The Kiwis were looking ragged, but England failed to garner the points that would have made the game more secure. It looked like a set-back when Roby went off after being clattered by Moa, but the first touch from the returning Hodgson allowed Ferres to touch down at the foot of the posts.
An eight-point lead would have been a match-winning 14 if Elliott Whitehead had not then been stopped on the line by a three-man tackle.
That left the spectre of falling to another late rally by the Kiwis hanging over the closing minutes until O’Loughlin’s late try ensured that there would be no last-minute defeat. From England’s point of view it had not been pretty, but after recent history, what did that matter?
“We’ve got some things to improve on,” said the New Zealand coach, Stephen Kearney – and, even on a night of celebration, so have their hosts.
England Hardaker; J Burgess, Watkins, Bateman, Hall; Widdop, Wiliams; Graham, Hodgson, Hill, Whitehead, Farrell, O’Loughlin.
Replacements used Roby, T Burgess, Ferres, Cooper.
New Zealand Tuiuvasa-Sheck; Nightingale, Kahu, Whare, Kenny-Dowell; Hiku, Lolohea; Bromwich, Luke, Moa, Proctor, Harris, Blair. Replacements used Nikorima, Taupau, Matulino, Taukeiaho.
Referee B Thaler (England).
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