England. There’s some Down Under folk that still label them a Rugby League ‘minnow’. Bridesmaids but never the brides. Big fish in a small pond. The nation that flatter to deceive. You get the picture.
Perhaps some of that is justified. After all England haven’t beaten number one ranked side Australia since 1995 and in that time-frame England have had disappointing tournaments one after the other. That though changed last year. England made the final of the 2017 Rugby League World Cup and since then under Wayne Bennett’s reign as head coach, they are seemingly going from strength to strength.
There’s a home World Cup for England in 2021 and that’s what this team are building towards. The results from this calendar year show that they’ve made some significant progress. After smashing the Kiwis in Denver mid-season England have now backed that up with two further test wins on home soil, the latest one a 20-14 thriller that saw the international game rise up to be the pinnacle that it should always be.
Liverpool was the location, the world famous Anfield ground was the venue, and the England performance was simply outstanding. With a considerably improved atmosphere it felt like an event, a proper occasion, and one we’ll remember for a long time.
The New Zealand opposition are no mugs and they fielded a strong line-up again. This is a Kiwi side that so convincingly beat Australia prior to arriving on these shores, and that should underline just how good this England team actually is. Bennett, whose popularity is rightfully growing each year, has done a sterling job. This team is evolving. It’s improvement on that Four Nations disappointment two years ago is so evident, it’s now a proper test team, with so many fundamental qualities, and it’s packed with genuine superstars that we should all be proud of.
One of those stars was hat-trick hero Tommy Makinson, an inclusion that received a backlash from certain areas of West Yorkshire when the squad announcement for the first test was made. The knee-jerks continued in St Helens too, but we’ve all been there and we’ve all had our moments. Put club allegiances aside. For now they’re all England players and it doesn’t matter who gets picked, they should all have our support. They’ve earned that. The commitment, resolve, and general quality of this England team was a joy to watch.
From their own perspective New Zealand will feel they should have closed the game out, but the fact they didn’t is credit to England, who never gave up and got their reward. On the wing Makinson was sensational, from his three tries, to his workload and defensive display. Collusions with Jordan Rapana were good enough, but his hit on Kevin Proctor was one of the best moments in what was at times a brutal test match.
The first half in particular was no place for the faint hearted. You can probably imagine the drool coming out of Barry McDermott’s mouth but the physicality again bordered on the games legalities but it made the entertainment value go up tenfold. That’s what we as fans pay our money for. We want biff, we don’t mind the odd scuffle (which there were plenty of, more than in a Tyson Fury fight and certainly less dancing), and we like it when a set of blokes come together and smash the shit out of each other, but show respect and shake hands when the hooter goes. That was exemplified best from Makinson, whose conduct post-match was nothing short of exceptional.
For England there was a lot to shout about, but this publication won’t hide away from the fact that it’s been very critical of Rugby League this year, from the way its run by the governing body, to the structures of our Super League competition, to the embarrassment of the final third of the season from our club side Hull FC, but when it’s done right, you really can’t beat it.
On social media we’ve got constant voices telling us what the game needs to do to prosper, and the answers are already on the postcard. It’s all about England, and the international side of the game. England need to be playing as many fixtures as possible in all corners of the globe, but it’s at that point we remind ourselves that the man in charge of orchestrating those fixtures is the baboon that handed himself a six figure severance payment upon leaving Red Hall, and there goes the pessimism that is unfortunately engraved into the average Rugby League doomsayer. But it’s justified – we can’t be blithely inattentive to it. It’s about striving to improve and wanting more of what we all witnessed in Liverpool because it was incredible.
Now it’s time to put our Black and White goggles on for Jake Connor, who after an average first half, was just magnificent. As far as natural talent goes there’s few better, and he has the potential to become one of the game’s best players, as we told you back in January when everyone outside of West Hull laughed and said we didn’t know what we were talking about. Four England caps and four England tries later, we’re laughing.
Connor oozes class. He’s a very good stand-off but an even better centre, as his exploits at Anfield show. He scored a fine second half try, but his highlight reel peaked with an incredible sequence of handling to catch and assist a pass to Makinson all in one movement. Just quality. There’s no other way to describe it. Connor is a special player who could start a fight in a phone box, and with his tendency to be a bit of a ‘home-bird’, the likelihood of a move to the NRL is low. When he said as much at a recent Danny Washbrook testimonial event that was music to the ears of all Hull FC fans.
England though are a team and not a set of individuals. The biggest compliment you can give them is that there wasn’t a bad player on the park. You could argue the long kicking game from the two half backs wasn’t great, but they posed a running threat and were involved in the point scoring. The England team also has options, the Josh Hodgson to lock role was tried out again and it gives the side an extra dimension when promoting the ball – something the brief presence of Adam Milner also achieved.
The forwards, who will almost certainly require a stint in the old cyro chamber before the third test in Leeds, were superb, from the Burgess twins, to James Graham, to Elliot Whitehead, laterally who has been nothing short of glorious for his country and is within a shout of being the best back rower in the game right now. At just 23-years-old, Luke Thompson is a baby in prop years but his performance was also superb. The same can be said of John Bateman, who still has years ahead of him. Youth is on England’s side, and given the rapid rise to prominence of this team, whose aspiration is to lift a certain trophy in three years time, it’s all a little bit exciting.
That progress will be watched with severe interest but for now all attention is on Elland Road come Remembrance Day, to hopefully complete the Kiwi whitewash, and show the world that England really do deserve to be taken seriously.
England Starting XIII: 1. Jonny Lomax, 2. Tommy Makinson, 3. Jake Connor, 4. Oliver Gildart, 5. Jermaine McGillvary, 6. George Williams, 7. Sam Tomkins, 15. Thomas Burgess, 9. Josh Hodgson, 10. James Graham, 11. John Bateman, 12. Elliot Whitehead, 13. Luke Thompson. Interchange: 14. Adam Milner, 8. Chris Hill, 16. George Burgess, 17. Daryl Clark.
England Tries: Makinson 3, Connor. Goals: Connor 1/4 Tomkins 1/1
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. Adam Blair. Interchange: 14. Kenny Bromwich, 15. Leeson Ah Mau, 16. Martin Taupau, 17. James Fisher-Harris.
New Zealand Tries: Watene-Zelezniak, Maumalo. Goals: Johnson 3/3
Scoring System: 2-0, 2-6, 6-6, 6-12, 6-14, 10-14, 14-14, 20-14.
Referee: Gerard Sutton