THERE were some tongue-in-cheek pre-match ‘concerns’ that England might need to parachute Sam Burgess straight back into the Test side next Saturday to potentially rescue this Test series.
The fear was Steve McNamara’s side could be out-done by New Zealand in last night’s opening Test in Hull and, therefore, be left fighting for their lives in the second of the three-game series set for London’s Olympic Stadium this coming weekend.
Frustrated Bath centre Burgess, readied to return to the 13-man code imminently after his woeful treatment by England’s union side, will certainly be welcomed back with open arms whenever he does return.
However, it seems buoyant England do not need him immediately given the manner in which they set about seeing off Four Nations champions New Zealand, currently No 1 ranked team in the world, in front of 23,526 fans at KC Stadium last night.
It was the first time the Kiwis had lost in seven international games but – having squandered an early 10-0 lead and then been kept scoreless for the last 54 minutes – they simply had no answer to the power of England’s pack led, as ever, by the relentless Canterbury prop James Graham and his forceful front-row colleagues Tom Burgess and Chris Hill.
With Brett Ferres, the Huddersfield Giants back-row, weighing in with two tries to add to his hat-trick against France nine days ago, and young scrum-half George Williams growing in stature as the game wore on, the hosts were good value.
It is only the second time McNamara has tasted victory over New Zealand, or Australia, since taking over in 2010, but now he is 80 minutes away from a first series win since Great Britain whitewashed the Kiwis in 2007 when he was Tony Smith’s assistant.
England, though, were 10-0 down inside just 16 minutes and could have few complaints. The tourists started far quicker, looking more purposeful and organised, while their off-load game also soon swung into action.
After Jason Nightingale squeezed one such pass out deep inside their own half, they showed great handling to send second-rower Tobu Harris over untouched after only seven minutes, Williams misreading in defence.
Leeds Rhinos’ No 1 Zak Hardaker was called upon to track back and collar Isaac Luke after Ryan Hall palmed down an attacking kick that bounced loose and, too often, his side generally lacked ideas with the ball when in decent areas. England turned down an easily kickable penalty only for Williams to spill and they would do it again later in the half, this time Hardaker coughing up possession early in the tackle count.
The first error cost England dearly as just moments later the Kiwis scored at the other end, again all too easily as Roger Tuivasa-Sheck crabbed crossfield and sent Sam Moa – the former Hull FC prop – barrelling over through some suspect defence.
New Zealand had enjoyed back-to-back possessions after Hill had strained every sinew to charge down a kick without being able to recover possession.
Luke slotted the kick but the hosts were quickly offered a lifeline when another former Airlie Bird, the Canberra Raiders hooker Josh Hodgson, profited with a try when Elliott Whitehead’s offload messily went to ground.
Gareth Widdop’s conversion saw them trail just 10-6, but captain Sean O’Loughlin was guilty of conceding a needless penalty on his own goalline allowing Luke another easy two points.
When Hardaker wasted that second possession after turning down a kick, it seemed doubly foolhardy when, in the next set, Tuivasa-Sheck, the dynamic full-back with twinkly feet, injected a burst of pace to open England up and send Jordan Kahu over.
However, the ‘score’ was harshly disallowed by video referee Richard Silverwood and Chris Kendall.
Almost immediately, England crossed for their second try, Ferres showing smart footwork to deceive Tuivasa-Sheck after hurtling onto Williams’s equally smart pass for Widdop to level the Test.
They almost went in ahead when Liam Farrell surged through off Widdop’s pass only to be denied by Tuivasa-Sheck’s desperate tackle.
England did go in front for the first time when they learned from their earlier mistakes and allowed Widdop to convert a 46th-minute penalty.
The home side utterly dominated territory, Hill, Burgess and Graham firing down the middle, their kicking game improving, but they did not prosper until the hour mark.
Moments after coming back on for James Roby, the England hooker left dazed by Moa’s swinging arm that went on report, Hodgson ushered Ferres over from close range again and Widdop gave McNamara’s side some daylight.
Williams slid in a delicate kick to force a drop-out only to see Whitehead somehow denied by a brilliant goalline tackle from Jesse Bromwich.
It did not matter, though; the erring Kiwis could find little rhythm from thereon in and it was left to O’Loughlin to step and ruthlessly barge away Adam Blair in the 77th minute to score England’s fourth try, Widdop slotting the extras.