Well we hate to say we told you so, but put Jake Connor in an England side and good things will happen.
The lad is an absolute class act and has natural-born talents that are so few and far between in the game right now. He makes the basics look so easy, he’s fluent in his play and he executes everything with genuine quality.
Worryingly so for us Hull FC fans, it’s hard to see Jake Connor playing at our club beyond the expiry of his current contract in 2020. He’ll be 25-years-old by then and mature enough to take on the demands of Australia’s premier competition the NRL. To some that will sound a bit premature after only one international but this assumption comes after watching him in Super League week in week out. He’s far too good for our competition – which has been poor this year.
They’ll learn to love him. The fanzine did a ‘Five Players that should feature for England‘ article last season and got ridiculed for suggesting that Connor should have been on the plane to the World Cup. Similarly in pre-season, we said he has the potential to become one of the game’s best players. To suggest otherwise is an insult to Jake. He can be that good and has the skills to do so.
The best testament to Connor’s performance was that England looked bang average until his arrival – ironic too that he entered the field alongside another Hull FC star in Scott Taylor, who gave another good account of himself on his fourth cap.
England were 12-0 down and the Kiwis were on top. Obviously credit goes to the team too for weathering the storm and growing into the game, but Connor played a huge role in that, outshining the starting stand-off in Jonny Lomax, and producing two silky try assists for first Ryan Hall and then Elliot Whitehead – who it must be said had an outstanding game.
If that wasn’t enough he was solid defensively and scored an absolute worldie of a try, showing strength to bust the line, and then the composure and skill to beat the New Zealand fullback and dummy his way over. It was a fantastic piece of play and announced Connor onto the international stage, but the worry will be a shoulder injury that took him off in the second half – the extent of which will become apparent early next week.
Before that, two Kiwi tries from first Esan Marsters and then Dallin Watene-Zelezniak seemed to have put them in total control. They were good value in the first half. Marsters, currently of Wests Tigers in the NRL, was a danger every time he touched the ball. Isaac Luke too was superb from dummy half, but he soured his display with a grubby piece of play in the second half. By that point England were dominant.
Whitehead’s second try had put them 18-12 up and into the lead for the first time, before a booming 50m penalty goal from Gareth Widdop adding two further points to the score-board. Connor’s try then followed, before Tommy Makinson and latterly John Bateman added some gloss to the victory. Sandwiched in between those efforts was a second try for Watene-Zelezniak, the current Panthers fullback, but his side, coached by Michael McGuire for the first time, were well beaten.
A record victory over New Zealand should satisfy the most severe England critic, and it was done in some style too. As we say, Wayne Bennett’s outfit looked average at best early on, but they grew into the game and finished it terrifically. Fair play, and especially to James Graham, who got his golden lion following his 40th international cap. Graham was his typical self, but please no-one let him near the kicking tee again.
Played in Denver, Colorado, in the United States, a crowd of 19,320 turned up to watch. Of course in a massive stadium there were a lot of empty seats but there’s a foundation to build upon here. In 1987 Queensland and New South Wales took their Origin to California and drew a much lesser attendance. And bare in mind Origin had its critics at the start. Look at it now. The crowd at Mile High Stadium exceeds that of Campbelltown in Sydney, where a double-header involving Papua New Guinea, Fiji, Samoa and Tonga again gave the international game another great advocate. That Tonga side is unreal and the powers that be need to organise as many fixtures for them as possible.
This though has to go down as a success. There’s a World Cup going over the pond in seven years time and the sport has to build towards that. Maybe just maybe, rugby league has turned a corner here, and opened a new market. Of course there’s still a long way to go, and the hardest challenge now is taking those second, third and fourth steps.
One thing is for certain though, if we don’t return to the USA next year, we’re shooting ourselves in the foot, but focusing on the immediate present, that was some performance from England, ahead of a three match test series against the same opposition come the Autumn, a test series Jake Connor just has to be involved in.
England Starting XIII: 1. Stefan Rochford, 2. Jermaine McGillvary, 3. John Bateman, 4. Marc Percival, 5. Ryan Hall, 6. Jonny Lomax, 7. Gareth Widdop, 8. Chris Hill, 9. James Roby, 10. James Graham, 11. Sam Burgess, 12. Elliot Whitehead, 13. Sean O’Loughlin. Interchange: 14. Jake Connor, 15. Thomas Burgess, 16. Tommy Makinson, 17. Scott Taylor.
England Tries: Hall, Whitehead 2, Connor, Makinson, Bateman. Goals: Widdop 6/7, Graham 0/1
New Zealand Starting XIII: 1. Dallin Watene-Zelezniak, 2. Jamayne Isaako, 3. Esan Marsters, 4. Peta Hiku, 5. Ken Maumalo, 6. Te Marie Martin, 7. Kodi Nikorima, 8. Jared Waerea-Hargreaves, 9. Isaac Luke, 10. Nelson Asofa-Solomona, 15. Raymond Faitala-Mariner, 12. Joesph Taline, 13. Martin Taupau. Interchange: 14. Slade Griffin, 11. James Fisher-Harris, 16. Herman Ese’ese, 17. Leeson Ah Mau.
New Zealand Tries: Marsters, Watene-Zelezniak 2. Goals: Isaako 3/3
Scoring System: 0-6, 0-12, 6-12, 10-12, HT, 12-12, 18-12, 20-12, 26-12, 32-12, 32-18, 36-18