England came from 12-0 down to record an impressive 36-18 win over New Zealand in an international test in Denver.
It was a tough introduction for the Kiwis’ new-look side as England’s experience showed in a dominant second half, after a bruising first half which had little between the sides.
England were on the front foot early on but it was New Zealand who got the first points, as Kodi Nikorima broke down the right and found Esan Marsters inside him to score.
The Kiwis were in control at that point, with their quick offloading game proving difficult to handle.
England thought they had a try when Tom Burgess drove through a gap to score, but the on field decision was overturned as the efforts of James Fisher-Harris saw him lose the ball before grounding.
Instead it was New Zealand who got the next score, with Nelson Asofa-Solomona’s offload allowing Isaac Luke to find a gap and play in Dallin Watene-Zelezniak.
England were down on the scoreboard but very much in the game still, and they got two tries before the break to bring down the deficit.
The first came down the left as Jake Connor found Ryan Hall to power his way past the defender and dive acrobatically into the corner.
Connor was then involved again as he slipped in Elliott Whitehead to score in the final minute of the half, although Gareth Widdop missed the kick to keep them two points behind at the break.
The second half came to life when Luke deliberately stamped on the hand of John Bateman and yet stayed on the field. Nonetheless, England did use the penalty in front of the posts to level the scores.
They soon had the lead as well, as Widdop’s clever kick sent Tommy Makinson in behind the defence and he played in Whitehead for his second of the game.
The restart from the Kiwis went long and Widdop took the penalty from the halfway line, extending the advantage to eight points.
That was up to fourteen a few minutes later, as Connor got a deserved debut try by bashing through the line and going on himself to the line.
England’s other debutant then got himself a try as well, as Makinson ran in after Whitehead’s great carry following an interception in his own half.
New Zealand got a score back as Watene-Zelezniak got his second, supporting the break from Luke to run in.
The final say went to the victors though, as Bateman went over from dummy half after Sam Burgess had been held out.
WHAT WE’VE LEARNED
Altitude has an impact
There was some controversy around this match with the altitude at the Mile High Stadium, with some concerns over the welfare of the players with little time to acclimatise.
A second half slowdown would have been expected and it came from the Kiwis, who seemed to have less explosive power in their forwards, while England only grew.
The biggest effect seemed to be in the air though, with kicks travelling a lot further than they usually would. New Zealand kick-offs went out on the full on three occasions, and both sides generally played on the last set much more than they kicked.
Both of England’s debutants did plenty to impress coach Wayne Bennett, with both Connor and Makinson getting on the scoresheet.
Connor was a contender for man of the match having also assisted both of England’s tries in the first half, while Makinson also got an assist for Whitehead’s second score.
Some of New Zealand’s new boys did well, including winger Jamayne Isaako, while centre Esan Marsters looked dangerous at times and got the first try but also made a few errors.
However their most impressive performer was full-back Watene-Zelezniak, who is still only 22 but played beyond those years with a composed performance and two tries.
Man of the Match – Elliott Whitehead (England)
Whitehead’s two tries were a deserved reflection of a brilliant all-round performance from the Canberra second rower.
He was England’s best tackler by far, going toe-to-toe with the Kiwi forwards and usually coming out in top, and winning the ball back on a number of occasions.
Tries: Hall, Whitehead (2), Connor, Makinson, Bateman
Goals: Widdop (6)
Drop Goals: n/a
New Zealand 18
Tries: Marsters, Watene-Zelezniak (2)
Goals: Isaako (3)
Drop Goals: n/a
England: Ratchford; McGillvary, Bateman, Percival, Hall; Lomax, Widdop; Hill, Roby, Graham; S Burgess, Whitehead, O’Loughlin.
Interchanges: Connor, T Burgess, Makinson, Taylor.
New Zealand: Watene-Zelezniak; Isaako, Marsters, Hiku, Maumalo; Martin, Nikorima; Waerea-Hargreaves, Luke, Asofa-Solomona; Faitala-Mariner, Tapine, Taupau.
Interchanges: Fisher-Harris, Griffin, Ese’ese, Ah Mau.
Referee: Ben Thaler