The eagerly anticipated opening fixture of the three match test series against New Zealand saw England in Hull at the KCOM Stadium for the crucial first instalment.
England won the mid-season game against the Kiwi’s in Denver by 36-18 but would have to do without the likes of Gareth Widdop, Luke Gale and Ryan Hall. New Zealand travelled to England on the back of a two point victory over Australia a fortnight ago and made just one change to that winning side.
The tourists were the slight favourites with the bookies but there was little to choose between the two sides, the stage was set for a classic.
It was thr dream start for England as they kept the ball alive on the last tackle on three minutes with three last gasp offloads leaving Sam Tomkins with the space to walk through a broken New Zealand defence and score by the right upright. Jake Connor added the extra on his home ground for a 6-0 lead.
On twelve the Kiwi’s were back on level terms as Shaun Johnson supported on the inside to take a Nikorima pass and run through a big gap to dive over. Johnson converted his own try to shout a loud warning to England that they would need to be attentive for the full eighty.
England escaped a scare on fourteen when Tommy Makinson offloaded near his own line and New Zealand touched down a loose ball, but the video referee ruled a knock-on.
After an England knock-on on the half hour by Jermaine McGillvary, New Zealand took full advantage as the full back Dallin Watene-Zelezniak took a Kodi Nikorima pass to dive over for a simple try. Johnson added the conversion brilliantly from the touchline for a 12-6 lead.
With just under a minute Jake Connor went low for the line under the tackle. Watene-Zelezniak slid in with the knees and as the referee sent the decision to the video official Ben Thaler studied the replays and awarded a penalty try against the full-back in Connor’s favour. Watene-Zelezniak was incandescent but waved away by referee Hicks. Connor added the conversion, showing no ill-effects from the tackle.
At 12-12 at the interval it was honours shared despite New Zealand slightly edging it on the field.
The opening points of the second half went the Kiwi’s way when England held on too long in the tackle and Johnson kicked the goal from twenty metres. Connor responded five minutes later when he kicked a two pointer for England to again tie the scores.
Another Johnson penalty, after England were caught offside, gave New Zealand the lead once more.
On sixty-six a superb debut try from Oliver Gildart after taking a Jon Bateman offload and running forty metres, evading the New Zealand tacklers, to go over for 18-16. Connor was unable to add the extras but England were two points ahead with twelve minutes on the clock.
On the back foot for the last twelve minutes England’s defence held firm and they managed to keep New Zealand out, despite a couple of scares.
This was an arm-wrestle of a game with some high impact aggressive defence and little room for flair in attack. The tries came mostly from mistakes and both sides will look to improve their discipline for the remaining two games in the series. A good first win ground out by England against superior possession and position for New Zealand.
Onwards to Anfield next Sunday, and an exciting game two.
England: Lomax, Makinson, Connor (PT, 3G), Gildart (T), McGillvary, Williams, Tomkins (T), Burgess, Hodgson, Graham, Bateman, Whitehead, O’Loughlin. Subs: Thompson, Hull, Burgess, Clark.
New Zealand: Watene-Zelezniak (T), Maumalo, Marsters, Manu, Rapana, Johnson (T, 3G), Nikorima, Bromwich J, Smith, Waerea-Hargreaves, Proctor, Liu, Fisher-Harris. Subs: Bromwich K, Ah Mau, Taupau, Tapine.
Referee: Robert Hicks.