In a performance strewn with mistakes, Oliver Gildart produced a wonderful match-winning try on his international debut as England beat New Zealand 18-16 at the KCOM stadium.
The game started in electric fashion, with two tries in the first twelve minutes of play.
England opened the scoring after only 160 seconds when Sam Tomkins crossed the whitewash after great work from Tommy Makinson and Jonny Lomax, but New Zealand levelled in tremendous fashion.
England couldn’t cope with the pace of Kodi Nikorima, who handed the ball on to Shaun Johnson.
If the New Zealand Warrior has any space, he will pick you off and that is exactly what he did; feeding the ball to the onrushing Esan Marsters who raced through the hole in the defence. Johnson added the conversion New Zealand were all square.
As expected, it was an extremely physical contest with both sides eager to get their series off to a winning start and moments after New Zealand equalised, video official Ben Thaler had a huge call to make.
Makinson caught a high punt from New Zealand and was forced back into his own in-goal area by a surging back from the visitors.
The St. Helens man then tried to offload and Jordan Rapana touched down, only to have his celebrations cut short by Thaler’s knock-on decision.
The crowd at International matches across the country have come under fire for creating less than inspiring atmospheres in recent years, not least the fans at the KCOM in this test four years ago. With local soccer team Hull City in Lancashire to face Bolton Wanderers, there were six thousand empty seats in the West Hull venue and New Zealand’s dominance didn’t help matters.
Despite being on the back foot though, the England defence stood tall and highlighted why they are amongst the best in the world. However, when you make a mistake at this level, you get punished.
Huddersfield Giants winger Jermaine McGilvary carelessly knocked on as he tried to play the ball and from the resulting penalty, Dallin Watene-Zelezniak showed his class.
Kodi Nikorima sprinted round the outside of his man, forcing Tomkins to cover out wide. Dallin Watene-Zelezniak saw the emerging gap in the defence and put his sprinting boots on to surge over the line and put his side into the lead.
After England came agonisingly close to levelling through Jake Connor, Robert Hicks again went upstairs where video official Ben Thaler ruled that the FC man had been fouled in the process of being held up inches from the turf and England’s no.3 converted his own try to make the score 12-12 at the break.
In a half-time interview, England Head Coach Jamie Peacock stated that his side had to improve their tackle completion rate and cut out the fatal sloppy mistakes if they were to have any chance of victory. His men, however, must not have heard him.
The match threatened to become a kicking contest in the second forty, with Johnson capitalising on two needless England errors either side of Jake Connor’s two points for the hosts, but then came Oliver Gildart’s piece of brilliance.
Collecting the ball just inside his own half, Gildart produced a moment of magic on his senior international debut.
In the blink of an eye, the Wigan centre turned on the afterburners and sped away from his man before selling a second defender a clever dummy and flew down the right flank to score possibly the best try of his career with fifteen minutes of the test remaining.
From then on, it was backs to the wall job for England who were determined to not let history repeat itself against a New Zealand side who hardly ever taste defeat.
Johnson, the architect of everything positive from the Kiwis, tried and tried to unlock the England defence, but even he saw his efforts count for nothing when the ball fell loose and Jake Connor threw himself on top of the ball with ten seconds left and England recorded a first opening-day series win for three years.
Man of the Match – Oliver Gildart (England)
Not only did the centre battle against the Kiwis’ fierce attacking play, he then scored one of the tries of the season. It was a second half performance that could have given the Man of the Match award to a number of England warriors, but the Wigan man scored the decisive try and thoroughly deserves the accolade.
Tries: Tomkins, Connor, Gildart
Goals: Connor (3)
New Zealand 16
Tries: Marsters, Watene-Zelezniak
Goals: Johnson (5)
England: Lomax, McGillvary, Gildart, Percival, Makinson, Williams, Myler, Hill, Hodgson, Graham, Whitehead, G. Burgess, T. Burgess, Bateman, Clark, Connor, O’Loughlin, Thompson, Tomkins.
New Zealand: Watene-Zelezniak, Maumalo, Marsters, Manu, Rapana, Johnson, Nikorima, J. Bromwich, Smith, Waerea-Hargreaves, Proctor, Liu, Fisher-Harris, K. Bromwich, Ah Mau, Taupau, Blair, Hughes, Tapine.
Referee: Robert Hicks