“Are you not entertained?” – New Zealand edge England in attritional second Test

THE patrons of Hell’s Sports Bar were able to watch Saturday’s second Test between England and New Zealand, but all they got to see were endless replays of Issac Luke shanking a kickable penalty and James Graham ploughing face-first into the turf as he desperately attempted to score a try.
In truth though, those were probably the two moments which best encapsulated the match at London’s Olympic Stadium, where the Kiwis levelled the three-match series with a 9-2 victory after 80 minutes of attritional, one-up rugby.
The 45,000 crowd in attendance may well have sensed what was to come when England opted to kick at goal from a penalty after eight minutes, Gareth Widdop duly obliging, and the cautious approach from both teams was underlined by them being deadlocked at 2-2 at half time.
Penalties undoubtedly played a part, with both teams seemingly in danger of being whistled off the park by Australian referee Gerard Sutton during the opening 40 minutes.
Specifically, Mr Sutton was keen to stamp on any messing around at the ruck, with both sides penalised for not retreating from the tackle quickly enough.
Both teams seemed surprised by this, but it should have been expected. It is one of the areas NRL referees are particularly hot on and arguably should have suited the New Zealanders more, rather than falling foul of it as much as England did.
Even so, it was an incredibly cautious approach from both teams. Both had clearly been working on defence in the week following the opening match of the series, although neither Steve McNamara nor Stephen Kearney had seemed to put on many sessions for flair and adventure.
Both England and New Zealand rightly won plaudits for the way they defended in this encounter, yet it could be argued the direct style of play from both sides made it easier for the defending players to make tackles and snuff out attacks.
It was not until the Kiwis got their offloading game going that either side really looked like scoring a try and that, combined with some deft handling from Tohu Harris, led to Shaun Kenny-Dowall grabbing what proved to be the only try of the game three minutes into the second half.
Otherwise, it was much of the same after the break and even the one time England did get over the try line, only for the video referees to decided Graham had knocked on while trying to ground the ball, came after a bullocking run from Chris Hill had taken them to within striking distance.
But while New Zealand were hardly inspiring, the hosts looked completely bereft of ideas other than continuing to try to smash their way through the defence.
Jordan Kahu’s late drop goal proved the game-clinching score, ensuring everything is to play for in next Saturday’s final Test in Wigan.
That match is a sell-out, although there was mutterings of consternation that rugby league would not have won any new fans from the showpiece match of the series outside its heartland.
It brings up the question of how much should professional teams simply play to win, no matter how they achieve it, or try to entertain as well.
Ironically, the BBC’s coverage of the match included an archive clip of Oscar-winning script writer and rugby league fanatic Colin Welland interviewing the teams ahead of the 1978 Challenge Cup final, in which Leeds coach Syd Hynes said: “We make mistakes and other teams score tries, but it’s good for the game when teams play open football.”
Sometimes though, games just fall short of expectations and this one was not helped by the error count of 14 by England and 13 by the tourists.
Despite conceding his side were not at their best, New Zealand head coach Kearney will perhaps not be too concerned about whether they entertained or not. For opposite number McNamara, the challenge is to rediscover the spark and dynamic attacking play which helped them to victory in the first Test.

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