England, frequently labelled by many south of the equator as a rugby league minnow, have retained the Baskerville Shield once again with another test series win over mighty New Zealand.
Almost a fortnight on and that still makes for great reading, thanks to victories in both Hull and Liverpool. Without question, the Bennett-Bot era continued it’s growing evolution, winning two tests despite the absence of several key players, including Slammin’ Sam, Scar Tissue Gale and likeable L**ds fella Kallum Watkins.
Building depth, whilst presenting a level of effort that was nothing short of phenomenal, the two wins, led by the likes of Jammar Graham and Gypsy King John Bateman were outstanding, and despite what turned out to be an anti-climax in the third test, no credit should be taken from what happened in the first two.
Here are five things we learned from the test series.
1.. England have definitely improved
Wayne Bennett first started pissing English people off in 2016 during the Four Nations tournament. To say he and his side flattered to deceive was an understatement. England were well off the pace but via a World Cup final, they’ve now achieved an impressive series win. Some turnaround from all concerned, with the guts and determination on show pretty extraordinary. Even Bennett’s got some admirers now and in all honesty he deserves them.
The depth Bennett has built is a credit to both himself and the Super League competition. There’s a responsibility for all clubs to bring through young English talent and give them a shot. Some succeed on that front more than others, there’s no denying that, but seeing the likes of Oliver Gildart, Jake Connor, Luke Thompson, Tommy Makinson and the like break through at this level was great to see. They complemented the world-class talent the squad already has at its disposal.
Additionally, the togetherness of England when the going got tough was remarkable. I’ll still maintain the second half at Anfield was the best forty minutes I’ve EVER seen from an England side. We were incredible, with and without the ball, and that level of effort and energy can only be appreciated.
2.. International rugby league draws crowds
After a disappointing gate in Hull, the crowds naturally, after the side won back to back tests, improved at first Anfield and then Elland Road, with the latter topping 32,000 people, almost double that present at the KCOM Stadium. That’s only bettered by three rugby league events in the U.K this season, showing that internationals are the way forward. Internationals create more attention, certainly more attention than a third fixture between the same two Super League sides on a Thursday night, and should be first cherished, and then made more frequent.
The other code already know their England fixtures for 2019 yet rugby league is still in the dark on what it’s doing. Tedious to make this a comparison on the two codes, leave that stuff to Eric, but why do they get it so right, yet we continually get it so wrong? This supposed Great Britain Lions series in Australasia should have been formalised months ago. Every day it isn’t prevents fans from making travel arrangements – I’ll use myself as an example, I played the waiting game but I’m now going to South-East Asia instead. Rugby League needs to book its ideas up, use the Tongans as the blueprint, and nurture the potential of the international game.
3.. Jake Connor is international quality
With our black and white goggles on most of our attention this test series was on Hull FC geezer Jake Connor, who, and like every Airlie Bird has told you over the past two seasons, is the benefactor of something unique in the modern day game – raw natural ability and the confidence to try the unorthodox. He’s a class act, seriously talented with all the potential in the world.
To opposition fans Connor became something of a pantomime villain in 2018 with his ability to start a fight in an empty room but he’s got many new admirers now. Probably one of the biggest compliments you can give Jake is that he kept new NRL sensation Joseph Manu so quiet, but his attacking peak has to be that second half at Anfield where he was virtually unplayable, as he was on his England debut back in Denver. Jake the Snake has not looked back. We’re just so lucky he’ll be lining up in those famous irregular hoops once again, even if they are two shades of black next year.
4.. Tommy Makinson – wow
The St Helens winger was magnificent throughout but like his centre partner Connor the pick of the bunch was that performance at Anfield, which on reflection almost certainly handed him the Golden Boot – something that is still sending dummies flying in Australia even now.
It’s quite amusing to look back at the squad announcements and observe the meltdown by Wakefield fans at Tom Johnstone not getting picked, but we’ve all been there. The decision was justified, after a solid display in Hull, Makinson of course scored a hat-trick of tries at Anfield, the third of which took some finishing, but arguably his most praiseworthy plaudits came on the other side of the game. His defence. After heroically stopping Jordan Rapana close to the line he performed another try saver on back rower Kevin Proctor. Talk about putting your body on the line. Sensational stuff – and best wishes to Jordan after dislocating his elbow later in the contest.
5.. Panther Pride
Sporting Panthers attire at all three venues, some #PantherPride has to be handed out here. That was the first time I’ve seen Dallin Watene-Zeleziank live and what an exciting player he is. As an NRL obsessive I’m not oblivious to his talents, but to see them live in the flesh is completely different to watching through a streaming subscription. Dallin scored in two of the three tests and was always a threat, although he won’t look back on Oliver Gildart’s worldie winner in Hull all too fondly. Elsewhere James Fisher-Harris lived up to his workhorse tag and it’s easy to see why Vossy loves him, although we definitely prefer the dreads. Outside the Panthers crop, the pick of the bunch had to be Kodi Nikorima, who with all due respect outshined his half back partner Shaun Johnson. Nikorima was outstanding, especially at the Leeds game.
It would also be rude not to hand out some praise to the touring New Zealand side in general, who obviously played their part in three terrific test matches, earning some revenge in the third test in what turned out to be a whitewash. England had to be at their best to edge out the Kiwis in the first two tests and victory only came about after some heroic efforts. Testament to Michael McGuire and his team. Of course this is a team that toppled Australia before coming to these shores and that’s always worth a reminder. They’re a tough and physical outfit and for a passionate rugby league fan, the biff, physicality, skill level and sheer entertainment level all made for a fascinating series.