England 16 New Zealand 17
Brave new era, all-too familiar story.
Wayne Bennett’s appointment as coach had raised real optimism England may finally end their four-decade long wait for a victory in a series involving Australia.
But their hopes of reaching the final took a severe blow with this one-point defeat to New Zealand in their opening Four Nations game at Huddersfield.
Shaun Johnson’s drop-goal with 15 minutes to go ultimately proved enough to seal a dramatic win, against an England side which choked at too many crucial times.
It was Johnson, remember, who sent England crashing out of the World Cup at Wembley three years ago. Since then, all of England’s games against Australia and the Kiwis have been settled by one-score, wins or defeats - and this was no different.
England trailed 6-4 at the break and after swapping tries in the second-half, locked the scores 16-16 before Johnson’s intervention.
Frustratingly, the hosts had chances to snatch a draw or win from then, but didn’t have the composure when it mattered the most.
There was no shortage of effort, which Bennett highlighted afterwards, but others would say that should be a given at this level; what they needed was the class to go with it.
Bennett must now decide whether to make changes to his side, possibly bringing George Williams into the halves and maybe Mark Percival or Stefan Ratchford, who offer an attacking threat, into the backs.
As expected, Wigan’s Dan Sarginson and John Bateman started at left centre and second-row respectively against a Kiwi side which had Thomas Leuluai, returning to Wigan next season, at stand-off.
Both sides knew defeat would seriously dent their chances of reaching the Anfield final, creating a semi-final-type atmosphere inside a packed John Smith’s Stadium in Huddersfield.
Lizzie Jones’ stirring rendition of Jerusalem was followed by the national anthems and the Kiwis’ traditional haka.
Sam Burgess was an obvious focal point. He was making his return to the England league team, as the new captain - and on the ground where he made a barnstorming Test debut nine years earlier.
He led a powerful pack and the early exchanges were typically fierce and unforgiving, helping England establish an early dominance. Widdop took an early chance to kick a penalty for offside and, moments later, struck again to make it 4-0.
In and around those scores were some encouraging signs - measured kicks, offloads, and second-phase attacks - and a simmering level of spite and needle to keep the action exciting.
But as the opening half entered the final 15 minutes, England faded as the Kiwis wrestled control. First, Jordan Kahu hit a penalty - reeling the score into 4-2 - after Elliot Whitehead was ruled offside when he palmed the ball out of dummy-half Leuluai’s hands in the 30th minute.
And they posted the only try of the opening half with a classy spread attack to the right, pulling Ryan Hall infield and allowing Jordan Rapana to sweep over in the corner.
England had been too passive in the latter stages of the half and if the instruction was to play with more intent, they attempted to do that with an immediate attack - only for Widdop’s pass to be plucked from the air by Johnson, who raced away to touch down.
Kahu’s goal gave the Kiwis a 12-4 lead.
But to England’s credit, they weren’t rattled by that quick setback, and punched their way down field to cut the gap to a slender two points before the 50th minute mark. Awarded a questionable penalty for a strip on Sam Burgess, they attacked right and left, and eventually softened the defence sufficiently enough for McGillvary to wedge through the scrambling cover. Widdop expertly swung the conversion between the uprights.
Leuluai was forced off the pitch for a concussion assessment, and never returned - he will need a medical check to clear him for next Saturday’s clash against Australia.
McGillvary - excellent throughout - was alert and strong enough to force Jason Nightingale into touch, but it proved only a temporary respite, as a neat offload allowed Rapana to dash through a splintered defence and slip through Lomax’s attempted tackle to send them 16-10 ahead.
Bennett sent Daryl Clark on for the final 20 minutes, as England locked the scores when Widdop’s improvised flick pass fell into Hall’s hands, and he powered over for a try the St George Illawarra stand-off converted.
Despite that score, the Kiwis looked the calmer and most capable of conjuring a winning play, and eased down field for Johnson to poke them 17-16 ahead with a simple dropgoal.
Roared on by a vocal support, England tried to get their noses back in front bu Sarginson was unable to take Widdop’s short ball close to the line, the latter missed with a 35m drop-goal attempt, and other half-breaks were snuffed out. In the final five minutes, Sam Burgess’ attempt to drag his side out of trouble included a pass between his legs which went forward, and a wayward offload.
Attention now switches to the double-header at Coventry’s Ricoh Arena next Saturday.
England face Scotland before Australia’s clash against New Zealand.
Presuming Scotland lose both their remaining matches, England’s chances of reaching the final hinge on them beating Australia in two weeks in London - and hoping that either the Kiwis beat them too, or for-and-against is sufficient enough for them to finish second in the table if they are all locked on four points.
England: Lomax; McGillvary, Watkins, Sarginson, Hall; Widdop, Gale; Hill, Hodgson, Graham, Bateman, Whitehead, S Burgess (c). Subs: T Burgess, G Burgess, Cooper, Clark.
New Zealand: Kahu; Nightingale, Kata, Kenny-Dowall, Rapana; Leuluai, Johnson; Bromwich (c), Luke, Waerea-Hargreaves, Proctor, Harris, Taumolo. Subs: Brown, Taupau, Ma’u, Blair.
Referee: Robert Hicks