England captain Sean O’Loughlin hailed his team’s gutsy fightback after they defeated New Zealand 36-18 in the ground-breaking Test match in Denver.
The new-look Kiwis made an impressive start, leading 12-0 after 27 minutes thanks to tries from Esan Marsters and Dallin Watene-Zelezniak, but England drew level early in the second half courtesy of Ryan Hall’s 35th try for his country and the first of two from second rower Elliott Whitehead.
With substitutes Jake Connor and Tommy Makinson crowning memorable debuts with second-half tries, England ran out comfortable winners as the Kiwis faded in the energy-sapping conditions in front of an encouraging 19,320 crowd at the Mile High Stadium.
“It’s a great victory, in unbelievably tough conditions,” O’Loughlin said.
“It was the hottest day since we’ve been here and the heat took its toll a little bit but the altitude was probably the biggest thing. Both sides felt it and it made the game scrappy at times but you just get through it.
“We’ve had a good week and hopefully put on a great game for everyone to see and, most importantly, got the win which is what we came here to do.
“They had a good start but we fought back and showed some guts.
“We were reasonably happy at half-time and we kicked on in the second half.
“The atmosphere about the place was brilliant, it might not have been full but the crowd was right on top of you and you could feel there was a good atmosphere.”
It was England’s first appearance since their narrow World Cup final defeat to Australia in December and Sam Burgess, one of the NRL-based players who fought to get the game on in Colorado, dubbed it a success.
“The first 20 minutes was as fatigued as I’ve ever been in a game but it’s been a great week and it’s been successful,” said the former Bradford forward.
“I know there have been critics but I thought both teams played with passion and heart and effort and that’s what Test match football is all about.
“It was great for us to be here and another good chance for us to play together again as a team.”
With coach Wayne Bennett opting to have just two forwards on the bench, Burgess agreed to a request from him to play the full match.
“He asked me if I could play 80 today and I thought it would be a big ask but I pushed it out and managed to get there,” Burgess said.
“It was a good team effort. I thought we worked hard for each other. We only had two forwards on the bench and I thought some of our small guys carried the ball well for us today.
“We got some breakaway tries and defended well when we needed to.
“The game was physical and it got fiery. The Kiwis have got a point to prove but I thought it was a great game of football.”
New Zealand coach Michael Maguire, who was in charge of his first game, took encouragement from the performances of his young side, which included seven debutants.
“The boys really controlled the game in the first 20,” he said. “Unfortunately at the back end of the first half our completion rates dropped, which increased the missed tackles and the pressure on us just became strong.
“Moments in Test matches change games, we kicked the ball dead three times from kick-off and that put so much pressure on ourselves.
“But credit to the young guys who showed me we’ve got some really good depth, they really impressed me and gave me something to work with.”