GEORGE Carmont’s dramatic last-minute try snatched a victory for the Exiles – after fellow Wigan centre Joel Tomkins looked to have rescued England from the jaws of defeat.
The home nation were trailing 10-6 and looking on the ropes with eight minutes left, when Joel plucked Danny Buderus’ long pass from the air and raced 90m to the line – and put England ahead for the first time all game.
But the Exiles – a team of Super League’s leading Australians and Kiwis – hammered their opponents line, and with seconds left Carmont crossed for the defining try.
It marked a grandstand finish to an inaugural International Origin match which was fiercely contested and largely entertaining – much to the relief of the RFL.
Because while the competitiveness of last night’s Headingley showdown may not have silenced all of the sceptics, even the harshest critics of the concept would concede the Exiles provided England with a better test than France or Wales.
Steve McNamara wanted a test – and he got it.
Of the Wigan contingent, Thomas Leuluai was particularly sharp in a mouth-watering midfield triangle with Buderus and Rangi Chase, while the telepathic centre-wing combination of Carmont and Pat Richards frequently troubled England’s right side.
Sam Tomkins made telling contributions for the home side, in defence as much as attack, while there were workmanlike efforts from the Warriors’ three other representatives.
The withdrawal of Wolves centre Matt King, due to the birth of his first baby, meant that both Wigan and Warrington each provided seven players to the game.
As expected, Leuluai, Richards and Carmont started for the Exiles, while Sam Tomkins (full-back) and Sean O’Loughlin (loose forward) were in England’s line-up, with Mike McIlorum and Joel Tomkins on the bench.
McIlorum was making his first appearance for the country of his birth, having switched allegiances from Ireland.
The teams emerged to fireworks and fanfare, and the Exiles respectfully lined-up as England sung God Save the Queen. The foreign team had no national anthem of their own, though there were rumours they had scrawled the back-catalogue of Crowded House – a band with members from both Australia and New Zealand – for an appropriate song, to no avail.
From the start the action was end-to-end, the error-count was low and with big hits from both sides, the early signs were promising.
Leuluai helped the Exiles open the scoring in the eighth minute. England skipper Jamie Peacock’s sloppy offload was pounced on, and after strolling down field, Leuluai ghosted past Ben Westwood to send Willie Manu crashing over.
Richards – handed the goal-kicking duties ahead of his former Wests team-mate Brett Hodgson – duly converted.
Brian McClennan’s outfit could have been further ahead minutes later, but St Helens’ James Graham did superbly well to hunt down Carmont, and then Sam Tomkins’ brave one-on-one tackle halted the elusive Chase just short.
Pre-match suggestions the Exiles may lack cohesion, having been thrown together days earlier, proved unfounded – they were fluid, enthusiastic and marshalled by Leuluai.
England had their moments, too, most noticeably through the probing runs of ex-Warrior Luke Robinson and the strong running of Graham. And it was a midfield charge from the latter which saw them make their breakthrough, with a try for the supporting Richie Myler in the 20th minute. Kevin Sinfield, playing at stand-off, converted to level the scores.
McIlorum came on in the 28th minute, just in time to see his side fall behind again, as a well-engineered move involving Chase, Carmont and Richards on the left eventually led to a try on the right for Francis Meli.
Joel Tomkins came off the bench for Westwood, but it was his younger sibling who made the next significant input: England were indebted to Sam for denying Richards a try in the corner – a tackle which underlined his rapidly-growing maturity – which ensured it remained 10-6 at the break.
The game faded as a spectacle in the second-half. England appeared rattled and unable to conjure up any attacking options, while the Exiles seemed content to cling onto their four-point lead.
But the close scoreline meant few of the 14,000 fans left early, and they were treated to a grandstand finish.
Sam Tomkins spilled the ball in an unforgiving tackle by Meli, but his older brother eased the pressure when he stepped up to rescue the game with a long-range intercept.
The Exiles hammered England’s line in the closing minutes – and the pressure eventually told.