England have taken an unassailable 2-0 lead in the Test series against New Zealand to give the 13-a-side code a huge boost. Here are 13 talking points we’ve learned so far...
1. After the first Test, Wayne Bennett said England had a “pretty special” team the country could be proud of.
After the second Test, many fans agreed with him.
After an entertaining opening Test, the second match was an awesome performance as the hosts’ desire and skill saw them battle back from eight-points down.
Given so many off-field dramas this year following the Super League split from the RFL, this series has offered renewed optimism for a bright future for the sport in this country.
And mentioning the wins...
2. The two Tests had a similar blueprint.
In both games, the teams were drawing at half-time and went down to the wire - before ultimately being settled by a piece of magic by an England back!
Tommy Makinson was an easy choice as man of the match, as much for his hat-trick of tries as his defensive contributions and tough carries out.
And mentioning wingers...
3. It wasn’t too long ago when the country had a shortage of quality wingers, and even resorted to playing stand-offs in that position.
Not so now. If Jermaine McGillvary or Makinson were unavailable, Wakefield’s Tom Johnstone would come into the frame. And if all three were out, Dom Manfredi, Josh Charnley and many others would not look out of place - we should celebrate the quality of wingers.
And mentioning depth...
4. Don’t forget this England side is missing several key players, including Sam Burgess, Gareth Widdop, Ryan Hall, James Roby and - from 20 minutes into the first Test - captain Sean O’Loughlin.
For all of Super League’s problems, the talent-pool is pretty impressive.
And mentioning the squad...
5. Four Warriors were in the England side - George Williams, Oliver Gildart and departing Sam Tomkins and John Bateman - with Joe Greenwood and injured Sean O’Loughlin missing out.
But those seeking other Wigan links didn’t have to look too far.
Of the seven backs, five were products of Wigan junior clubs - including St Helens duo Jonny Lomax (Orrell St James) and Tommy Makinson (St Judes).
St Edmund Arrowsmith High School in Ashton could lay claim to having as many of their ex-pupils in the starting side - two, with Luke Thompson and Oliver Gildart - as there were players from Yorkshire clubs!
And mentioning Gildart...
6. A highlights reel of the series so far would be a great advert for rugby league.
Gildart’s amazing try in the first Test, Makinson’s finishing, the Kiwis’ polish and more big hits than a Bon Jovi playlist.
And what about the Jake Connor tip-on pass for Makinson’s second? Sublime.
And mentioning Connor...
7. In three years in charge, Wayne Bennett has often raised eyebrows with his selections - and a few questioned his decision to start Connor, and Gildart, ahead of Mark Percival in the centre roles.
But when a coach is judged by results, he should be entitled to pick a squad - and a team - he feels can best get the job done.
It will be interesting to see whether he tinkers with his line-up as England target a whitewash at Leeds’ Elland Road on Sunday. Either way, the RFL are confident fans will turn out in force on Sunday.
And mentioning fans...
8. History suggests the Anfield attendance wasn’t actually that bad.
Yes, the 26,234 figure meant the iconic venue was less than half-full. And yes, everyone wants to see bigger crowds for these showcase matches.
This is an issue - but it isn’t a new issue.
Of the Tests staged in the northern ‘heartlands’ over the years, England (or Great Britain) have often struggled to attract big crowds.
In fact, only once in the last 70 years have they had a bigger gate than the Anfield attendance at a northern venue - the 27,884 who were at Bolton in 1998.
And mentioning crowds...
9. Does Hull deserve to stage international rugby league again?
A disappointing attendance of 17,647 watched the opening Test at FC’s KCOM Stadium - around 6,000 less than the same fixture in 2015.
And remember, just two years ago only 5,337 turned out to KR’s home to see Australia superstars Cooper Cronk and Cameron Smith face Scotland.
And mentioning Australia...
10. Such confidence in the England side has raised the obvious question - when can they play the Kangaroos again?
And the short answer is: Nobody knows.
A revived Great Britain and Ireland Lions tour has been proposed for 2019 but it is unclear whether that will include a match against the Kangaroos or not.
“Australia can do what they want to do,” said Bennett. “We’ll be in that part of the world next year. We’ll be playing Test matches, it may not be against Australia.”
Legend Garry Schofield has already accused the Kangaroos of “running scared”. The Rugby League International Federation meet in York this week to thrash out a schedule but New Zealand are already committed to facing Tonga in mid-season in 2019.
And mentioning the Kiwis...
11. What makes England’s series win so enjoyable is the fact this is a high-quality New Zealand squad.
Michael Maguire masterminded a win against the Kangaroos three weeks ago, so he’s doing something right.
In flashes, New Zealand exhibit real quality, but they are patchy and on Sunday, they too easily lost their cool and their composure and went away from what worked so well for them.
And mentioning their strengths...
12. Kiwi captain Dallin Watene-Zelezniak is a great ambassador.
He is showing maturity and humility off the field, and incredible athleticism on it - he deserves his place on the Golden Boot shortlist.
As disappointed as he must have been, the 23-year-old spoke to the media after the game yesterday when many of his Kiwi team-mates brushed journalists’ requests for interviews.
The full-back tried to defuse a controversy when asked about prop George Burgess poking his fingers into the Kiwi’s eye - saying gouging ‘wasn’t in his kitbag’.
It remains to be seen whether Burgess will face retrospective punishment but, that incident aside, the Tests have had the right amount of niggle and needle without boiling over to delight those watching on TV.
And mentioning TV...
13. A tip of the hat to the BBC, who have done a fine job so far.
It wasn’t long ago the Beeb’s coverage was far inferior to Sky Sports’, but not any more.
Mark Chapman is a wonderful host, the pundits used - Justin Holbrook, Denis Betts, Brian Noble and Jon Wilkin - are insightful, and the commentary led by Dave Woods is spot on.
Robbie Hunter-Paul has previously irritated a few by venturing onto the pitch but in the first Test, there was the comical sight of him annoying the Kiwi trainer as he weaved between players warming-up!
The Beeb did a decent job with promotion - on radio, breakfast TV - and what it excelled at was the pre-recorded segments, featuring Jamie Peacock, the Gildarts and Kallum Watkins.
A peak 1.7million watched the second Test, with 1.4m on average.
Bennett later called for more internationals for his England side - many would echo his plea.