England take a small step in right direction with New Zealand series triumph

IT TOOK 17 minutes of the deciding Test in this year’s International Series for New Zealand to realise constantly kicking the ball in Jermaine McGillvary’s direction was not a particularly good idea.
The Huddersfield Giants winger, who ended the 2015 season as top try-scorer in Super League after crossing the whitewash on 27 occasions, was finally handed his England bow for the all-important encounter at Wigan’s DW Stadium yesterday.
His introduction to international rugby league saw the 27-year-old on the receiving end of a high tackle as he charged up field – leaving BBC commentator Dave Woods to remind us how McGillvary was the most-fouled player in Super League this year.
It would not be the first time the Kiwis found themselves being penalised by referee Ben Thaler in their efforts to check McGillvary’s progress, with him perfectly complementing fellow England winger Ryan Hall.
Steve McNamara’s decision to bring in McGillvary for Joe Burgess was not simply a case of having pace, power and brute force on both wings – although both the Huddersfield man and Leeds Rhinos’ Hall do provide those elements.
Both – and Hall in particular in this regard – were more than willing to come infield and take the ball up the middle early on in the tackle count, which showed their versatility and meant England did not have to rely entirely on their forwards to make the hard yards.
Defensively too, the pair and Hall’s Rhinos team-mate Zak Hardaker at full-back played a big part in keeping New Zealand at bay for large parts of the match as they sought to play a much more expansive game than the previous week’s snoozefest at the Olympic Stadium.
Straight from the kick-off, England showed their intent to try to open up their opponents by moving them around the field and the work of another player who had been called into the starting 13, scrum half Matty Smith, was key to that.
Smith embiggened the role with a cromulent performance in the way perhaps George Williams had failed to do during the first two Tests, instantly forging a good partnership with stand-off Gareth Widdop, looking to move the ball quickly and testing the New Zealand defence with an array of kicks.
The gleeful recipient of one of those kicks – via a Kiwi toe-poke – was Elliott Whitehead, who picked up the ball for England’s first try on 27 minutes, with Widdop’s conversion adding to his early penalty and giving the hosts an eight-point lead.
Like the previous week, this winner-takes-all clash was a tale of a titanic defensive struggle for much of the first hour, only much more fascinating with neither team in any danger of wondering what might have been.
Jason Nightingale’s try for the tourists three minute before the interval was an example of what makes rugby league such a thrilling sport, with his dive over the top of Hardaker’s tackle attempt capping an exhilarating, lightning-quick attack.
Having barely got a hand on the ball in the first 20 minutes of the match, New Zealand and coach Stephen Kearney may well ponder how they failed to take advantage of near-on relentless pressure during the same period at the start of the second half.
Then just when it seemed as if they might be able to get back into the match, a high shot on Whitehead allowed England to relieve the pressure and the Catalan Dragons lock was there to finish off the move from the tap restart, bouncing off several defenders and powering over the try line.
Skipper Sean O’Loughlin put the seal on the win with a try on his home club ground 10 minutes from time, but – somewhat disconcertingly – the hosts then showed that classic English sporting trait of making life far more difficult for themselves than it needed to be.
New Zealand deserve credit for exploiting a couple of defensive weakness to score two tries late on – indeed, Jordan Kahu could have strolled through twirling a cane for the second should he have so wished after finding himself in acres of space from a cross-field kick – and it should serve as something of a wake-up call for England.
Nevertheless, history will only record the match and series were secured with a 20-14 triumph, keeping the Baskerville Shield on these shores and securing McNamara’s immediate future as England head coach.
New Zealand came to England as the number one-ranked team in the world, and despite them being hit by injury and unavailability the displays in each of the three Tests showed plenty of promise from McNamara’s men.
The stiffer examination comes next year when the Four Nations resumes. The Kiwis will be back, as will England’s great sporting enemies the Australians, fresh from a year off internationals, and Scotland, who are making their bow in the competition.
Winning a Test series for the first time in eight years is a small step in the right direction and claiming a maiden Four Nations triumph would be a much greater one ahead of the 2017 Rugby League World Cup. Only another 12 months to wait to see if, this time, the progress can continue…

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