Two years ago, admittedly very early in Wayne Bennett’s reign as head coach, England opened their Four Nations campaign in Huddersfield with a disappointing defeat to New Zealand. The mood was stale.
Since that cold day in West Yorkshire, this England squad made the Rugby League World Cup final, hammered New Zealand in Denver, and have now beaten them again 18-16 in the first of three tests back on English soil. The mood is now upbeat. This is some test team. They work hard for each other, they’re tough and they’re resilient, not to mention their resemblance to the average boy band with their collection of short back and sides and questionable tattoos. Not that we’re into stereotypes of course. But what they do do is make you proud to be English.
They’re good lads, with a good coach. Bennett we all know doesn’t like facing the media, and can be portrayed in a negative way with his short and blunt answers, but he has the respect of the players, and that’s what matters. They like him and they play for him. Bennett has also proved he knows more about Rugby League than the average flat capper in Wakefield. He made the right decision to pick Tommy Makinson over Tom Johnstone and again the call to put Oliver Gildart in over Mark Percival proved to be the correct one. Bennett’s popularity is growing and rightly so. He said post-match we should be proud and proud we are.
That win over New Zealand was some effort. This is a Kiwi team that looked so assertive against Australia back in Auckland just a fortnight ago, and it’s a team England had to dig deep against to beat. Adjusting yourself to an English temperature that is rapidly dropping is never easy, and you’d presume the Kiwis will come back even stronger in Liverpool next week, but praise must go to the home nation here. By the laws of the school playground England are the best team in the world right now. You know the maths. New Zealand beat Australia. England beat New Zealand. Let’s just forget about the last twenty-three years of Anglo-Australian history, and instead applaud such childish antics.
What must be said was a below-par KCOM Stadium crowd was treated to a cracker. It was tense, it was high skilled, and it had its drama. There’s improvement to be made in England of course, for instance last tackle kicking options, but mentally they are spot on. At times that test match was brutal. New Zealand probably stretched the legalities to the extreme, especially with the hit on Jonny Lomax. In Super League we’ve seen similar challenges red carded, and you could argue referee Robert Hicks bottled further punishment. It added some spice to the occasion though. England gave some back. Incidents like ginger sort Luke Thompson coming off the bench and smashing Martin Taupau, or George Burgess rampaging through the middle are what you pay your money for.
Under Bennetts watchful eye England are growing in confidence and we have the forward pack to match it. Players like Tommy Makinson, Jake Connor, Oliver Gildart, and Thompson himself, all so raw to the standard and situations of test football, but coming through it like seasoned internationals. The actual winner from Gildart was genuine quality and was as good as anything we’ve seen this season. The confidence to actually try a maneuver like that in a game that is becoming all the more robotic was a breath of fresh air. Before that we saw two other passages of real quality. Sam Tomkins’ opening try was desperate, but an equally brilliant sequence of handling, and Jake Connor showed both confidence and bravery to get over for his, despite the attention of Dallin Watene-Zelezniak’s knees, a decision that ultimately brought a penalty try.
In response New Zealand could only manage two tries and penalty goals, Esan Marsters glided over from a slick shift of the ball and Watene-Zelezniak coasted over from a scrum play. You’ve got to give the home side praise here. For all the skill the Kiwis possess, England contained them well. Connor impressively kept his talented opposite number Joseph Manu quiet – an impressive feat on its own. The Hull FC sensation just goes from strength to strength on the international scene, but he wasn’t on his own, nor was he the most impressive on the day. Elliot Whitehead, a continued shining light in the England team, was brilliant, as was John Bateman – two Bradford lads who will link up with Canberra Raiders in the NRL next year. In truth the whole pack was impressive, as were the outside backs. England arguably needed a bit more control in the halves, but you’re being pessimistic to find major faults with the performance. This is a test team that can now fully compete and beat the Southern Hemisphere sides. England are evolving and it’s great to see.
The only negativities come off the field. As is always the case, the same people who will undoubtedly moan when Hull doesn’t get a test match next time around will be the ones who were sat on their sofas on Saturday afternoon. It’s poor. We should, like the seven times prior for a proper test at this venue, be selling out the stadium. The fault of that lies with a combination of sources. The RFL have to take some onus, as do both of the top flight clubs in Hull, and of course both sets of fans. But with a dose of realism, and given the fact that Hull supporters had about as much interest in the final two months of the Super League season as Ralph Rimmer does of marketing England games, then to see thousands of unoccupied pieces of plastic wasn’t really a surprise.
Hopefully Anfield and Elland Road will be better but given their increased capacities it could for the watching television spectactor at least look a little embarrassing. When it’s done right it’s a fantastic product but Rugby League never does things the easy way. Both the England and New Zealand players don’t deserve that. They deserve a full house. Luckily UTC are going to both remaining tests, and given the exploits and beauty of the international game observed at the home of Hull FC, we urge as many fans to come and join us.
England Starting XIII: 1. Jonny Lomax, 2. Tommy Makinson, 3. Jake Connor, 4. Oliver Gildart, 5. Jermaine McGillvary, 6. George Williams, 7. Sam Tomkins, 8. Tom Burgess, 9. Josh Hodgson, 10. James Graham, 11. John Bateman, 12. Elliot Whitehead, 13. Sean O’Loughlin. Interchange: 14. Luke Thompson, 15. Chris Hill, 16. George Burgess, 17. Daryl Clark.
England Tries: Tomkins, Connor, Gildart. Goals: Connor 3/4
New Zealand Starting XIII: 1. Dallin Watene-Zelezniak, 2. Ken Maumalo, 3. Esan Marsters, 4. Joseph Manu, 5. Jordan Rapana, 6. Shaun Johnson, 7. Kodi Nikorima, 8. Jesse Bromwich, 9. Brandon Smith, 10. Jared Waerea-Hargreaves, 11. Kevin Proctor. 12. Issac Liu, 13. James Fisher-Harris. Interchange: 14. Kenny Bromwich, 15. Leeson Ah Mau, 16. Martin Taupau, 19. Joseph Tapine.
New Zealand Tries: Marsters, Watene-Zelezniak. Goals: Johnson 4/4
Scoring System: 6-0, 6-6, 6-12, 12-12, 12-14, 14-14, 14-16, 18-16.
Referee: Robert Hicks