England 2 New Zealand 9: Damp squib fails to light up England’s series bid

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ENGLAND’S HOPES of a first Test series win against southern hemisphere opposition since 2007 were left hanging in the balance by a damp squib of a performance at London’s Olympic Stadium.

Fireworks greeted the players as they entered the field and lit up the wet skies in the hours after the match, but England failed to ignite and New Zealand were deserved 9-2 victors to level the three-Test series.

England's Ryan Hall.

England's Ryan Hall.

The Kiwis took a step forward from their 26-12 loss six days earlier, but England went back into their shell. It wasn’t an entirely poor performance; the hosts’ defence was outstanding, but on attack they offered almost nothing.

While England were unchanged, Kiwi coach Stephen Kearney made a significant alteration, promoting Kodi Nikorima off the bench into the scrum-half role in place of Tuimoala Lolohea.

New Zealand’s halves were poor in the first Test, but Nikorima gave them a new dimension and his partner Pita Hiku had a much more effective game. Issac Luke, at hooker, controlled things and second-rowers Kevin Proctor and Tohu Harris, along with loose-forward Adam Blair, all had big games.

After hitting back from 10-0 and 12-6 down in the opener and running in four tries in the process, England threw very little at the Kiwis and rarely looked like getting over the opposition’s goalline.

Low scoring games don’t have to be dull, but this one was. It was an opportunity missed not only for England, but the sport as a whole. According to the RFL, a high percentage of the 44,393 tickets sold were purchased in the south of the country. The Sam Burgess affair has sparked new interest in rugby league, but fans attending their first game – or turning into prime time television coverage on BBC 1, would wonder why they bothered.

There was just one try and England’s backs have not scored in the series. Kallum Watkins, one of the most potent attacking players in rugby league, made a couple of excellent tackles, but was starved of the ball.

The one time he was given a good attacking opportunity, in a second-half combination with Leeds Rhinos team-mate Zak Hardaker, it nearly produced a try.

Hardaker also defended well, but had no real attacking chances and Leeds’ other England player Ryan Hall was also woefully underused.

The World’s Best Winger hasn’t had a clear try scoring opportunity in either game. He was always willing and got stuck in to help out his forwards, but England aren’t getting the ball to him. He is playing outside John Bateman, who is an outstanding second-rower, but not a Test-class centre. Not selecting Michael Shenton in the squad was a mistake and suggests coach Steve McNamara was planning on playing Hardaker inside Hall, with Sam Tomkins – who was ruled out of the series by injury – at full-back.

England’s kicking game was poor and their halves had an afternoon to forget.

George Williams admitted so after the game and, though a terrific talent who has a big future at the top level, he looked out of his depth. It’s easy with hindsight, but with England a game up, the second Test was not a must-win and it would have made sense to change the side to give squad members – including Castleford Tigers scrum-half Luke Gale – some game time.

Gale deserves a chance in Saturday’s decider at Wigan, but he hasn’t played in more than a month and it would be a big call to expect him to slot straight in.

On the positive side, England have conceded just three tries in two Tests and they look very sold in defence, across the field.

The Kiwis’ try came at the start of the second half when Nikorima ran the ball on the last and supplied Harris, whose brilliant low pick up and pass sent Shaun Kenny-Dowall over.

Gareth Widdop had kicked England ahead with a penalty and Luke equalised in similar fashion.

Dean Whare converted the try and sealed things with a late drop goal, after Luke had missed a straight-forward penalty attempt.

James Graham appeared to have scored between the posts before the one-pointer, but video duo James Child and Phil Bentham said he had not grounded Josh Hodgson’s kick, though referee Gerard Sutton had indicated a try.

England: Hardaker, J Burgess, Watkins, Bateman, Hall, Widdop, Williams, Graham, Hodgson, Hill, Whitehead, Farrell, O’Loughlin. Subs Roby, T Burgess, Cooper, Ferres.

New Zealand: Tuivasa-Sheck, Nightingale, Kahu, Whare, Kenny-Dowall, Hiku, Nikorima, Bromwich, Luke, Moa, Proctor, Harris, Blair. Subs Brown, Taupau, Matulino, Glenn.

Referee: Gerard Sutton (Australia).

Attendance: 44,393.

John Kear’s Wales, meanwhile, completed a remarkable turnaround with a comprehensive 30-4 win over Ireland in Bray to claim the 2015 European Championship.

Wooden-spoonists last season, Kear’s increasingly confident squad posted five tries to defeat their rivals for the crown and remain undefeated this time.

On the domestic front, Sheffield Eagles have signed prop forward Scott Wheeldon from Super League side Castleford Tigers on a three-year deal.