England completed their first Test series triumph over southern hemisphere opposition since 2007 by beating new Zealand 20-14 at Wigan’s DW Stadium.
The hosts led by 14 points with eight minutes left, but the Kiwis scored two late tries to set up a tense finish.
It was a morale-boosting victory for England and will send them into next year’s Four Nations in good heart, but New Zealand were the better team over the course of the three matches and in the decider.
Defence won England the series. Though they were caught out late on, the Wall of White again stood firm, under huge pressure at times, as they had in the 26-12 opening win and the 9-2 second Test defeat.
They had to, because England’s attack was one-dimensional. All their seven tries in the series were scored by forwards and their backs rarely looked like getting across the line.
England coach Steve McNamara made the expected changes, bringing in winger Jermaine McGillvary and scrum-half Matty Smith for Joe Burgess and George Williams.
Smith was named man of the match and Sean O’Loughlin took the player of the series award.
The rest of the team was unchanged from the first two Tests and New Zealand boss Stephen Kearney fielded the same 17 who had got the job done a week earlier.
Smith was presumably called up for his kicking and the wet conditions, on his home ground, suited him.
He created England’s first half try, after 27 minutes. His neat grubber took a deflection and stood up nicely for Elliott Whitehead to gather and touch down.
Gareth Widdop added the conversion to his second minute penalty, after a foul by Adam Blair on Chris Hill.
England had possession and field position in the first half, but didn’t make enough of it. Again, John Bateman looked out of his depth as a Test centre, which meant dangerman Ryan Hall didn’t get any opportunities.
Hall worked hard, but has effectively played as an extra forward in the series. On the other flank, debutant McGillvary ran hard – though he was caught out of position on defence for the Kiwis’ first half score - and Kallum Watkins, starved of possession in the two previous games, did get some chances to threaten, but made uncharacteristic errors.
Throughout, the Kiwis looked more dangerous when they had ball in hand. They attacked relentlessly down England’s right and referee Ben Thaler had to call for video assistance over a possible try for Jason Nightingale, but Peta Hiku had knocked-on.
Straight after Whitehead’s try, Nightingale was denied a try by a superb tackle from England’s Leeds Rhinos full-back Zak Hardaker.
But there was nothing Hardaker could do four minutes before the break when Hiku, Alex Glenn, Jordan Kahu and Kodi Nikorima combined to feed Nightingale and he dived spectacularly over the full-back’s last-ditch tackle for a brilliant try, which Issac Luke improved from the touchline.
New Zealand dominated the third quarter, but were kept out by a combination of outstanding England defence and their own errors, most notably when Roger Tuivasa-Sheck lost the ball close to the line from Nikorima’s pass.
Then with 19 minutes left a penalty for Dean Whare’s high tackle on Whitehead relieved the pressure, Bateman made a good run in then resulting set, then Smith’s pass found Whitehead close to the line and footwork and power carried him over.
Widdop added the extras to open an eight-point gap and England seemed to have made sure of the win with eight minutes remaining.
A debatable penalty – they won the count 9-5 – carried them up field and the defence parted for O’Loughlin, who stepped through the middle on his home ground.
Widdop again converted. It seemed like simply a consolation when Tuivasa-Sheck pulled an unconverted try back, off Nightingale’s no-look pass, almost immediately.
Then Nikorima spotted the defence out of position, kicked across field and Jordan Kahu slid over. Luke’s conversion attempt his a post and England held out, though the Kiwis were attacking in their 20 when the hooter sounded.
England: Hardaker, McGillvary, Watkins, Bateman, Hall, Widdop, Smith, 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: Ben Thaler (England)