ELLIOTT WHITEHEAD was the unlikely hero today as his two tries sealed gutsy England victory over New Zealand and the national side’s first series win in eight years.
It looked for large parts of an attritional third, final and deciding Test at rain-sodden Wigan that the hosts would eventually be over-run by the technically superior Kiwis.
However, that would be failing to take account of England’s remarkable defensive resilience, a trait of these last three weekends against the world’s number one ranked team, which meant they were able to somehow protect their slender lead having been 8-6 ahead at half-time.
It also meant that when Whitehead, the former Bradford Bulls second-row who has just left Catalans Dragons for Canberra Raiders, fended off two tacklers to reach over with their first real attack of the second period that spirited England were almost home.
Sean O’Loughlin, the captain playing on his home ground, made sure when New Zealand’s defence parted spectacularly on their own line in the 72nd minute for Gareth Widdop to add his fourth goal.
However, it is never that easy for England; they switched off momentarily at the death for Roger Tuivasa-Sheck - from a brilliant Jason Nightingale flick pass - and the excellent Jordan Kahu to score tries but they held on again as the Four Nations champions tried everything at the last.
In front of a crowd of 24,741, England coach Steve McNamara’s two changes from the side that lost 9-2 in London last week, both paid off.
Huddersfield Giants winger Jermaine McGillvary enjoyed a fine, if unspectacular, debut, doing everything he was asked to do - returning the ball strongly, adding pace to the ruck, taking all his kicks and making the Kiwis work.
He did not really gain a pass of note to show his class in the attacking third but that was not his issue and he can be delighted with his 80 minutes after taking Joe Burgess’ spot.
Scrum-half Matty Smith, meanwhile, brought organisation and a steady hand to England’s midfield having replaced Wigan team-mate George Williams and duly won the man-of-the-match award, durable loose forward O’Loughlin taking the accolade for the man-of-the-series.
England - who did not see a single back score a try in the three Test series - led 8-6 at the break but, in fairness, New Zealand looked the far more threatening side.
The hosts were solid enough, the likes of Tom Burgess and James Graham impressing up front, but they lacked incision when they went wide.
The Kiwis, meanwhile, looked to shift it whenever possible, despite the incessant drizzle, and showed some wonderful handling skills.
England were grateful to Zak Hardaker making one fine cover tackle to deny Nightingale who was also earlier forced into touch by McGillvary as the hosts, typically, scrambled to great effect.
Smith had put England ahead with a fourth minute penalty after New Zealand started shakily, messing up the kick-off to concede an early drop-out, too.
But, after absorbing all the initial pressure, Issac Luke cruised through midfield to illustrate their obvious attacking menace.
England, on the other hand, were wasteful; Kallum Watkins barely got a look in last week but here the Leeds Rhinos centre got plenty of ball only to mis-fire badly.
He dropped the first pass when space was there and, after finally escaping the excellent Kahu’s clutches, then passed inside to no one, something he would do again in the final minute of the half when O’Loughlin’s kick was charged down creating a rare chance.
They had extended their lead to 8-0 when Smith’s deft grubber ricocheted slightly for Whitehead to cross in the 27th minute, Widdop improving, but Nightingale - who had already had one effort ruled out - scored nine minutes later with a superb, acrobatic finish in the corner after yet more quality handling.
Luke converted to leave it 8-6 at the break and New Zealand had the better moments for most of the second period, too, restricting England’s hopes of extending that lead.
Widdop had to get back to deny Tuivasa-Sheck after the full-back was unleashed by a lovely Kodi Nikorima inside ball and then it was James Roby who shut down Tuivasa-Sheck himself when they edged closer still.
Similarly, Brett Ferres was called upon to deny Peta Hiku and Whitehead floored Alex Glenn as England’s defence - superb all series - again showed its strength.
When Harris and Hiku went high on Whitehead, however, it offered the 26-year-old his chance. He, and England, took it to claim the Baskerville Shield and that long-awaited series success.
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: Ben Thaler (England)