England had the chance to seal a series win over New Zealand, for the second time in four years, as the two sides met for a Sunday afternoon encounter at Anfield in Liverpool.
With skipper Sean O’Loughlin out injured it was down to veteran star James Graham to marshall his troops against what was sure to be a New Zealand onslaught as they looked to level the series ahead of next weekends game at Elland Road in Leeds.
The Kiwi’s were slight favourites with the bookies but there was very little to choose between the two sides whose only changes from last week were both at loose forward.
A late hit by Jesse Bromwich on Sam Tomkins gifted England the first points of the match after five minutes when Jake Connor kicked a twenty metre penalty from slightly to the right of the uprights.
On eight minutes Watene-Zelezniak got the first try of the game running the angle from ten metres off a short pass to go between two wrong-footed England defenders to score. Shaun Johnson slotted the conversion straight between the sticks for a 6-2 lead.
Jordan Rapana was held up over the line on seventeen as the English defence held firm in keeping their line intact. George Burgess was also held up on thirty-six as the forwards dominated the midfield in what was developing into a slugfest.
Two minutes before the interval Tommy Makinson flew over in the left corner off a George Williams long pass. After an amazing defensive stint it was just deserts for the Saints winger. Connor was unable to add the conversion and the sides went into the interval tied up at 6-6.
It took four minutes of the second half for New Zealand to re-establish their lead after a forty metre Watene-Zelezniak break saw him to ten metres from the line before he released Ken Maumalo with a long pass to cross in the corner. Johnson was again accuratewith the boot from wide.
The lead was eight points on forty-nine after a Johnson penalty goal from twenty metres out punished England.
Tempers flared on fifty-four, not for the first time in the game, after a late hit on Sam Tomkins by James Fisher-Harris. Two minutes later Tommy Makinson got his second, again in by the corner flag, this time off a superb Connor tap pass after a Jonny Lomax burst for the line pulled in the Kiwi defenders. Connor missed his second conversion of the afternoon, England trailing 10-14.
Just before the hour mark Tom Burgess pushed his way over the line but the try was ruled out as the England prop lost the ball in the act of scoring.
England were back level on sixty-three as Connor spun out of the tackle after taking an Elliott Whitehead pass, to ground after going blind side down the left wing. Connor hit the left upright with his conversion attempt, just one out of four attempts on a poor afternoon with the boot.
On seventy-three Makinson grabbed his hat-trick try, weaving twenty-five metres through the New Zealand defence to reach out and score one-handed. The video referee agreed with the on-field decision to award a try and when Sam Tomkins added the extras with the boot it was 20-14.
Tomkins had a drop goal attempt charged down on seventy-five but it didn’t matter as England held strong and even finished the match on the attack after Whitehead stole the ball from a desperate New Zealand side.
It was another terrific win for England as they took an unassailable lead in the three test series at 2-0. Makinson will grab all of the headlines for his hat-trick but it should be his defence and that of his colleagues which should be applauded. It was a top drawer defensive effort from the England side which has grown in stature over the last one hundred and sixty minutes against the second ranked side in the international game.
Elland Road in a weeks time should now be a celebration for England as New Zealand look to avoid a whitewash.
England: Lomax, Makinson (3T), Connor (T, G), Gildart, McGillvary, Williams, Tomkins (G), Burgess T, Hodgson, Graham, Bateman, Whitehead, Thompson. Subs: Milner, Hill, Burgess G, Clark.
New Zealand: Watene-Zelezniak (T), Maumalo (T), Marsters, Manu, Rapana, Johnson (3G), Nikorima, Bromwich J, Smith, Waerea-Hargreaves, Proctor, Liu, Blair. Subs: Bromwich K, Ah Mau, Taupau, Fisher-Harris.
Referee: Gerard Sutton.