ENGLAND now have a solid base to build on going into next year’s Four Nations and the 2017 World Cup.
The 20-14 win over New Zealand on Saturday completed a 2-1 Test series triumph, England’s first in a tournament against southern hemisphere opposition since 2007.
Afterwards, coach Steve McNamara refused to comment on whether he will – or even wants to – continue as coach.
But whoever is in charge next year will have an improving group of talented, young players to work with.
If they can add to the positives from this year’s series, England will have a real chance of competing with and beating Australia and New Zealand in the bigger challenges to come.
England’s defence won them the deciding fixture, in front of a 24,000 full house at Wigan’s DW Stadium and has been impressive in all three games.
New Zealand scored only six tries in total and two of those came in the final six minutes of the third Test, when they climbed off the floor to set up a tense finale.
The England pack, unchanged in all three Tests, again carried them to victory, against big, physical opponents.
Former Bradford Bulls and Catalans Dragons second-rower Elliott Whitehead was the unexpected hero, scoring two of the hosts’ three tries.
He had a big match, particularly when he returned in the final quarter following a spell on the bench.
Whitehead is heading to join Canberra Raiders and his spell in the NRL will only improve his game.
Starting props James Graham and Chris Hill, loose-forward Sean O’Loughlin and replacements Mike Cooper and Thomas Burgess all took the battle to the Kiwis.
Brett Ferres, another substitute, had a good series – in attack and defence – and England looked a better team when James Roby came off the bench.
Added to that, Sam Burgess will be in the mix in 12 months’ time, following his return from rugby league, so England’s pack is in good shape and getting better.
Loughlin, England’s captain, scored their third try, on his home ground and was named player of the series.
The man of the match award went to another Wigan man, scrum-half Matty Smith, in his first game since the Grand Final loss to Leeds in October.
McNamara selected Smith in place of his dropped clubmate George Williams and also brought in winger Jermaine McGillvary, who took over from Joe Burgess.
The coach deserves credit for getting those changes right.
Smith, a less exciting choice than Castleford Tigers’ Luke Gale, revelled in tricky conditions on his regular turf and deserved his most valuable player accolade.
McGillvary was caught out of position for a couple of Kiwi tries, but was safe under the high ball – particularly a terrific take in his own in-goal area just before an England touchdown – and returned kicks strongly.
Once again, England were one dimensional on attack, though New Zealand defended well.
The hosts had only one try to show for the lion’s share of possession and position in the opening half and the backs failed to get over the whitewash.
All three tries – and all seven in the series –were scored by the pack.
Leeds Rhinos full-back Zak Hardaker had his best game of the series. His kick-offs caused New Zealand problems, he was more of a threat with the ball and made some key tackles, including a try-saver on Jason Nightingale in the first half.
Team-mate Ryan Hall, playing outside makeshift centre John Bateman, has gone three games without a real try-scoring opportunity and operated effectively as an extra forward, making a good job of it as he came infield to take on the donkey work.
It was a disappointing afternoon for the third Leeds player, Kallum Watkins, who finally got some passes, but made uncharacteristic errors, though he battled hard and kept going to the end.
New Zealand played the more adventurous rugby and the six tries were shared, but Gareth Widdop’s goal-kicking – three conversions and a penalty – proved the difference.
Issac Luke managed just one success, off the touchline, from his three attempts.
New Zealand were far from dismayed afterwards.
They were missing some influential players through injury, but were always competitive and will feel they could have taken the series had their first-choice half-backs been available.
The key period in the game was the third quarter when New Zealand, trailing 8-6, threw everything at England, but could not find a way through.
At the end of that, a high tackle by Jordan Kahu on Whitehead set up a rare England attack, Bateman did well in the build-up and then Whitehead’s footwork took him over the line.
Another penalty – one of nine to England, against the Kiwis’ five – led to the third try, with eight minutes left, the defence parting for O’Loughlin to cut through the middle.
The Kiwis finally got things together after that.
Roger Tuivasa-Sheck scored from Nightingale’s brilliant no-look pass and then Kodi Nikorima kicked across field and Kahu slid over, but it was just too late.
Earlier, Widdop had booted England ahead with an early penalty before Smith’s grubber took a deflection and stood up nicely for Whitehead to gather and touch down.
The Kiwis replied in spectacular fashion when Nightingale dived over Hardaker’s attempted last-ditch tackle after Peta Hiku, Alex Glenn, Kahu and Nikorima – who is a player to watch for in the future – had handled in a fine flowing move.
After the crowd was so quiet in the opening two games, more attempt was made by the event organisers to whip up an atmosphere and that paid off, though a much better contest helped.
The England team wore warm-up tops in support of rugby league journalist Gary Walker, who is fighting for his life after being assaulted in London before the second Test earlier this month.
It was a fantastic gesture and is hard to imagine that happening in any other sport.
England: Hardaker, McGillvary, Watkins, Bateman, Hall, Widdop, Smith, Graham, Hodgson, Hill, Whitehead, Farrell, O’Loughlin. Substitutes: Roby, T Burgess, Cooper, Ferres.
New Zealand: Tuivasa-Sheck, Nightingale, Kahu, Whare, Kenny-Dowall, Hiku, Nikorima, Bromwich, Luke, Moa, Proctor, Harris, Blair. Substitutes: Brown, Taupau, Matulino, Glenn.
Referee: Ben Thaler (England).