MANY people under-estimated just how far spirit, determination and downright stubbornness – all attributes this England team has in abundance – can take a side.
Leading only 8-6 at half-time against New Zealand in the deciding Test, having been dazzled by some splendid Kiwi handling in atrocious conditions, the majority of the 24,741 crowd must have feared this would simply end in yet another brave and gallant loss for Steve McNamara’s side.
The manner in which the second period started did not suggest anything different; the tourists, with their offloads still sticking in the rain and their outside backs looking likely to pierce when receiving possession, seemed primed to pull clear just like the Australians have done so many times before against England on such occasions.
However, the opposite occurred; the hosts, who had struggled for any cohesion with the ball for a second week running, taking a firm grip.
Elliott Whitehead, the Catalans Dragons forward bound for Canberra Raiders, impressively muscled his way over for his second try of the game in the 63rd minute from England’s first attack of note in the second half.
Matty Smith, the Wigan scrum-half recalled at club-mate George Williams’s expense, tagged on the conversion and did likewise when captain Sean O’Loughlin exposed some tired defence to score again nine minutes later.
The Kiwis, as you would expect from the world’s No 1-ranked team, finished with a flourish via late tries from two of their dangerous backs, Roger Tuivasa-Sheck and Jordan Kahu, to set up a tense finish but, fittingly, it was left to former Bradford Bulls forward Whitehead to hoof the ball into touch when their last desperate raid came to nothing.
“It was a bit nervy at the end when they needed another try to level but everyone works for each other in this team,” he said, understating the obvious given England’s resilience and organisation in defence had once more proved such a cornerstone of their success as they finally won a series for the first time since Great Britain defeated the Kiwis in 2007.
“If someone goes out of the structure, someone will cover back and save us.
“It’s a good achievement for all the boys. We had belief in the camp all the way through the series that if we kept hold of the ball a bit more and did less defending that we’d get more points and win the game.”
Unquestionably, for all McNamara’s side lack guile in attack, they certainly make up for it with guts in defence.
At various times, Zak Hardaker, Widdop, James Roby, Whitehead and Brett Ferres – who injured his shoulder in the process – pulled off vital tackles to prevent an avalanche of points from engulfing them.
They had lost just 9-2 in London the previous week and, with Huddersfield Giants winger Jermaine McGillvary adapting well to international football on debut, the grittiness showed in the capital was once more evident in the north west.
Even when the tourists were swarming, their makeshift half-backs of Peta Hiku and Kodi Nikorima testing England’s resolve, the hosts remained confident.
Bradford-born Whitehead, who also scored in the first half after latching onto man-of-the-match Smith’s grubber, explained: “That’s because after last week we knew we could defend and keep them out.
“They only scored one try then and we were more bothered about working on our attack this week.
“Personally, I feel like it is my best game of the series. I’d not been involved as much as I wanted to be but today I got involved a bit more.
“I can’t remember much about the tries but it doesn’t get much better for me. It’s good to win some silverware. It’s the first piece I’ve ever won and to leave on that note to Australia is such a big achievement.”
England had opened the scoring with a fifth-minute penalty from Widdop but the visitors had looked more dangerous until Whitehead scored in the 27th minute.
Winger Jason Nightingale did cross soon after with one of his trademark finishes, Issac Luke adding his only goal, but McNamara’s side did not buckle again until those late stages.
England remain a work in progress and that is why it is so disappointing there is no further action until this time next year when the Four Nations takes place here.
The return of George Burgess, and probable introduction of fellow prop Alex Walmsley, will make their already impressive pack all the more powerful.
There remain question marks about their ability to attack with purpose out wide but all that is for another day as is the decision on whether McNamara, out of contract, will continue, too.
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; Kenny-Dowall, Whare, Kahu, Nightingale; Hiku, Nikorima; Bromwich, Luke, Moa, Proctor, Harris, Blair. Substitutes: Brown, Taupau, Matulino, Glenn.
Referee: B Thaler (England).