ACCORDING to their coach Wayne Bennett, England’s players are keen to “rattle some cages” on the Test stage.
There is a long way to go yet, but with the 2021 World Cup in mind, positive signs are in evidence.
The 18-16 win over New Zealand at Hull’s KCOM Stadium was England’s third straight Test success since their narrow defeat to Australia in last year’s World Cup final.
The Kiwis offered little resistance in Denver four months ago and the recent clash with France was not much more than an opposed training session, but Saturday’s game was a different proposition.
Under former Wigan coach Michael Maguire, the Kiwis defeated Australia two weeks ago and are a far cry from from the side embarrassed in the World Cup.
They led three times in the series opener and played the better rugby for much of the game, but England showed an encouraging resolve in defence and responded quickly to each setback.
On attack they rarely put New Zealand under sustained pressure; their kicking game was ineffective and they should have made more of a hefty advantage in the penalty count.
But England did not concede a try in the second half and refused to panic when stand-off Shaun Johnson attacked their line in the closing moments, in a situation reminiscent of a shattering defeat at Wembley five years ago.
Overall, it was an impressive victory and Bennett praised his side as a “pretty special footy team”.
He told the media afterwards: “I think you should be really proud of them, a great group of guys who work really hard.
“It was a great second half, a great game actually and we could not have given any more.
“We’ve not had a bad player.
“Everybody turned up here today to play for England and they all gave their best.
“There’s about 10 guys that played in last year’s World Cup that aren’t here, for injury reasons mainly.
“We are building some depth, which is really important.
“We are building a lot of young men with desire, who really want to rattle the cages of Australia and New Zealand.”
Former Bradford Bulls second-row forward Elliott Whitehead was voted England’s players’ man of the match.
He defended strongly, troubled the Kiwis with his offloads and was involved in both England’s first-half tries.
The opener came inside three minutes, Sam Tomkins crossing after Tommy Makinson had claimed George Williams’s kick and Jonny Lomax also kept the ball alive.
Jake Connor, selected in the left-centre, converted the try. He had a strong game on his home turf, particularly in defence.
Connor was the player fouled when England received a penalty try on the stroke of half-time.
New Zealand had forged into a 12-6 lead at that stage through tries by Esan Marsters and Dallin Watene-Zelezniak, both of which Johnson converted.
The second of those came after a knock-on by Huddersfield Giants winger Jermaine McGillvary.
He had few opportunities to add to his impressive strike rate at Test level, but carried the ball strongly away from England’s line and was unlucky not to receive a penalty when he hacked on from Tomkins’s kick and was blocked by Ken Maumalo.
It looked like New Zealand would lead at the break, but Connor went over from Whitehead’s pass with 53 seconds left in the half.
Referee Robert Hicks indicated a try, but consulted video assistant Ben Thaler.
He decided Connor had not grounded the ball, but only because Watene-Zelezniak slid into him with a knee.
Instead of being from the touchline, the conversion was taken in front of the posts and Connor’s goal levelled the scores.
Hicks was earlier over-ruled by Thaler when the referee indicated a try to Jordan Rapana only for his assistant to spot a knock-on by the same player.
Johnson booted New Zealand back in front with penalty goals either side of an equalising kick from Connor and at 16-14 the tourists looked poised to take control.
However, England stuck out of the blue with a try worthy of winning any Test, Oliver Gildart skipping past Watene-Zelezniak from an excellent offload by John Bateman with 13 minutes remaining.
“It was important for both teams to play well to show it’s a full-on Test series,” Bennett reflected.
“It’s the best of three games and next week will be tougher than it was today because New Zealand will want to win, they realise the importance of it.
“It is going to be important for us to continue what we’ve done and not go into the third game with a one-one score.”
England: Lomax, Makinson, Connor, Gildart, McGillvary, Williams, Tomkins, T Burgess, Hodgson, Graham, Bateman, Whitehead, O’Loughlin. Substitutes: Thompson, Hill, G Burgess, Clark.
New Zealand: Watene-Zelezniak, Maumalo, Marsters, Manu, Rapana, Johnson, Nikorima, J Bromwich, Smith, Waerea-Hargreaves, Proctor, Liu, Fisher-Harris. Substitutes: K Bromwich, Ah Mau, Taupau, Tapine.
Referee: Robert Hicks (England).