Wigan Warriors’ Harry Smith was the star as England Academy pulled off a sensational 14-8 victory in the opening clash with the Australian Combined Schools.
The Widnes-born scrum half deservedly took the man of the match award at Leigh Sports Village on Saturday.
It was England’s first win over the Aussies since a drawn series in 2014, but Smith’s contribution was immense with a superb kicking game.
He also contributed a try, three goals and a crucial 40/20 in the dying minutes when Australia were threatening to snatch a win that on the balance of play they didn’t deserve.
But this was no one man show with the England forwards immense as ex-Wigan St Pat’s youngster Morgan Smithies tackled anything that moved, whilst front rowers Oliver Wilson from Bradford and another St Pat’s player, Ethan Harvard, drove the ball hard behind the scurrying of Leeds hooker Corey Johnson.
The performance left Head Coach Dave Elliott delighted although he confessed it was a nervy last 10 minutes or so.
“I nearly had a heart attack at the end,” he said.
“But I thought our energy throughout the game was first class. I thought we controlled it , our kicking game was outstanding, and where we finished the back end of sets we were in good positions. But the last 10 minutes we kind of fell of the cliff, and forgot everything we had worked on all week.
“It was a big team effort, but Harry Smith played really well, he controlled our sets, and his kicking game was outstanding, but two others that stood out for me where Harry Newman in the centre and Morgan Smithies at loose forward. I thought Morgan was exceptional.
“It was a great experience, we knew it was going to be tough, they are big lads, especially in the back field. We did do a good job in the first half but we let them back into it in the second half.
“It was nice to get the points, but the 40/20 near the end was a big relief. I thought it was going straight out at first, but then it just dipped I thought it was a game changer. It was good to see that and it helped us to get a bit of field position when we needed it.”
That 40/20 may not have mattered if Louis Senior had managed to hold on to impressive Joe Shorrocks’ flicked pass when the line was begging with nine minutes left.
Australia had big winger Stephen Crichton, centres Bradman Best and Star To’a, as a constant threat and half back Jck Madden was busy in the final quarter.
But it was England that fully deserved their win thanks to some great defence, a dominant pack for the first 60 minutes and Smith’s superb kicking game
After a scrappy start that saw Australia concede three penalties and England make three unforced errors, it was the home nation that finally broke the deadlock on 10 minutes when following an Aussie goal line drop out.
Saints full back Jack Welsby was tackled short, and Leeds centre Newman had the presence of mind to quickly dive in for a try that Smith goaled for a 6-0 lead.
England were dominating territorially and forced Australia to take four goal line drop outs, whilst great defence particularly from loose forward Smithies, Johnson and second row Sam Walters kept the drives of Juwan Compain and half back Ratu Nanovo at bay.
But with Smith’s kicks pushing back Australia and their full back Tesi Niu struggling to contain them, the second try finally came on 35 minutes when Smith’s bomb enabled sub Shorrocks to hammer into Niu as his feet hit the ground.
Niu lost the ball and the following Smith claimed the touchdown for a well deserved second England try to which he added the extras.
Leading 12-0 at the break, England had dominated the first half with Smith and his half back partner Callum McLeelland finding eager runners in their pack, whilst Australia’s kicking game was non-existent and the defence of Star T’oa was often called into force.
The second half commenced with the torrential rain continuing to fall and England piling on the pressure, forcing a penalty when Holroyd was not allowed to play the ball and Smith booted over the two points to increase the England lead.
That prompted Australia’s best spell as Compain was held on his back over the England line, Franklin Pele’s powerful surge was rebuffed and a goal line drop out was conceded.
Australia needed to do something and after a great break from T’oa on the right, the ball was worked to the left and quick hands from Compain and Bradman Best sent winger Stephen Crichton in at the corner for a try to which Madden couldn’t add the extras on the hour mark.
Australia had replaced the error ridden Niu with Timanu Alexander, reshuffled and were a different side as Madden’s towering kick was lost by Innes Senior, and Welsby had to scramble to deny Zac Zini a second Australia try.
England should have had it sewn up on 71 minutes when the returning Corey darted from dummy half and fed Shorrocks for him to flick the ball out to Louis Senior, only for the wingman to spill the ball with the line at his mercy.
Even at this level the Aussies showed their penchant for counter attack, and swiftly down field the fired for Alexander to slide in for a second ungoaled try and leave the England team with a nervy eight minutes to play.
Madden finally came into his own, and kept the Aussies going forward, but a 40/20 from Smith forced them back and although Chrichton put in a good break at the death, Welsby’s tackle ended the game and Australia hopes of snatching a draw.
The game had had its niggles and right on the final whistle both sets of players were pushing and shoving as tempers flared but didn’t quite boil over, to set up a pulsating second Test at Headingley on Friday evening.