Despite a crushing 0-34 loss against New Zealand, England lifted the Baskerville Shield on Sunday with a 2-1 series victory. This was by no means the strongest squad that Wayne Bennett could pick but he showed that there was good strength in depth in each and every position.
With Gareth Widdop, Sam Burgess, Ryan Hall, Kallum Watkins, Ben Currie, Alex Walmsley, James Roby and Luke Gale all unavailable for the three match series, players such as Oliver Gildart, Luke Thompson and Adam Milner had big shoes to fill.
TEST 1: ENGLAND 18-16 NEW ZEALAND
In the first test, England fielded an internationally inexperienced back-line with only McGillvary and Tomkins the only players with over 10 caps. However, Tom Burgess, Josh Hodgson, James Graham, John Bateman, Elliott Whitehead and Sean O’Loughlin were proven performers in the pack.
Wayne Bennett was relying on Sam Tomkins and Jermaine McGillvary to lead from the back.
Tommy Makinson and Luke Thompson had only made their debuts the week before against France and Oliver Gildart was making his debut in the first test but all proved to be valuable assets in the game.
Sean O’Loughlin and Jame Graham are now coming towards the end of their international careers and were looking to make an impact. However, O’Loughlin lasted just 16 minutes at the start of the first test and would play no further part.
Captain Graham was outstanding in the first test, showing Luke Thompson how to lead the line and run hard and straight.
Makinson and McGillvary were solid in both attack and defence as both were comfortable under the high ball.
Makinson showed that in the third minute as he rose higher than Jordan Rapana to collect George Williams kick, offloaded to Elliott Whitehead, who then offloaded to Jonny Lomax who released Sam Tomkins to score the first try of the series.
England’s discipline was a let down for them in the first test though and it was a penalty against the hosts that the Kiwis took advantage of as Shaun Johnson combined with Esan Marsters, to send the centre over.
Tommy Makinsons only mistake was in the 15th minute as he offloaded by his own line and the Kiwis nearly scored but they knocked on in the process of collecting the loose ball.
Jake Connor and Oliver Gildart’s first half performances were outstanding and looked comfortable when facing up against the skill and power of Joseph Manu and Marsters.
Connor worked well to get over the line right on half-time as he was guaranteed to score if it hadn’t been for Dallin Watene-Zeleniak sliding in with his knees, winning a penalty try.
Luke Thompsons impact came off the bench in place of O’Loughlin and the utility forward kept Martin Taupau busy in defence and quiet in attack as the Kiwis struggled to contain him.
Josh Hodgson was the starting hooker but seemed to lose concentration a few times during the game and his kicking game was poor at at KCOM Stadium.
The second half was not as open and free-slowing as the first but Oliver Gildart and John Bateman made sure that it didn’t stay that way. Bateman dragged in three Kiwi defenders, offloaded to Gildart who then danced around Watene-Zeleniak to score what would be the match winning try with 14 minutes remaining.
Daryll Clark had entered the fray with 25 minutes remaining and seemed to give England the boost needed in order to take control of the game going into the final stages.
England’s defence was superb in the closing 5 minutes with huge try-saving tackles from McGillvary and Thompson. Jake Connor was the man who secured the result though, as he pounced on a loose Shaun Johnson kick in the last 10 seconds to win the game on the Hull FC mans home ground.
Elliott Whitehead received the man of the match award as he was rewarded for his dangerous running on the fringes and quick play the balls too much for the Kiwis.
TEST 2: ENGLAND 20-14 NEW ZEALAND
Only one change to England squad for the second test with Adam Milner replacing O’Loughlin for only his second test having played against France two weeks previously.
Sam Tomkins and George Williams solidified their half-back partnership in game one and were given in the opportunity to control the England side around the pitch at Anfield.
Tomkins did well to brush off a huge late hit from Jesse Bromwich in the open 5 minutes.
England’s defensive quality didn’t start the same way it finished in Test One as Dallin Watene-Zeleniak sliced through the line to slide over in a reversed version of last weeks try.
England nearly conceded just minutes later though but Tommy Makinson clattered into Jordan Rapana, who picked up a knock in the process.
James Graham showed more experience in this game. His scrum play on 16 minutes was unfairly ruled out as he managed to win the ball back against the head.
Makinson then made a huge hit on Kevin Proctor, the Kiwi second-rower to save a would be try.
Despite multiple handling errors from both sides, England still seemed to be on top towards the end of the half and they ended the first 40 with a try.
Makinson showed that he wasn’t a terrific tackler but also a flying finisher as he dramatically dived over the line after a looping George Williams pass.
Milner joined the game in the second half and did not disappoint with a few big tackles and strong runs.
Another late hit on Tomkins meant the tempers flared as the hour approached. This made England rally but Williams nearly lost the game for England as a flailing offload was dropped by Jordan Rapana.
This passion from England put them right back in the Test and Jake Connor’s pass to Makinson was absolutely first class and the St Helens winger was then on hand for another fantastic finish in the corner.
Jake Connor was denied his own try last week but he definitely deserved his try at Anfield this week.
Having not dropped a single ball all day, Tommy Makinson was extremely comfortable under the high ball. He was also extremely comfortable with ball in hand too and he scored his hat-trick in the 74th minute by running through the Kiwi defenders who were disorganised.
Jonny Lomax hadn’t done too much in terms of breaking the line and tackling, but his passing when apart of the attacking line is what gave Makinson the opportunity needed to break and score.
The Burgess twins, Tom and George, were a force to be reckoned with as were Graham and Luke Thompson. The straight, forward runs and hammering tackles took their toll on the Kiwis and that is what ultimately led England to a series victory.
The only negative about George was the unintentional eye-gouging incident on Watene-Zeleniak which meant he was handed four-game ban.
The man of the match for the afternoon was Tommy Makinson because as well as his hat-trick of tries, he was unbeatable under the high ball and made many a try-saving tackle.
Elliott Whitehead was also a tackling machine in this test and good have well received the man of the match award for his outstanding performance.
Josh Hodgson also improve in this test as his aggressive levels were untouchable and made the most amount of tackles for an England player.
Unbeknowned on the day, Sam Tomkins played with a broken hand for 75 minutes in this fixture and would therefore miss the third test.
TEST 3: ENGLAND 0-34 NEW ZEALAND
Richie Myler replaced Sam Tomkins in the number seven jersey. Daryll Clark was injured and George Burgess was suspended. This allowed Stefan Ratchford and debutant Joe Greenwood to make the bench in replacement of the missing duo.
There wasn’t much positivity after this huge loss but there were still plenty of positives to talk about.
Their seemed to be a little bit of complacency about the England side at Elland Road. This won’t be what Wayne Bennett will have wanted but England really did miss the experience of Tomkins in the halfs.
New Zealand were not lying down in this test despite already losing the series and were playing for pride and with passion. They were faster, stronger and more intelligent than England with the ball.
The play the ball was much slower than in previous weeks but England still had the skill the cross the whitewash. Makinson did manage to dot the ball down after a flying finish but Kevin Proctor was deemed to be obstructed by Tom Burgess and the try was disallowed.
Luke Thompson, James Graham and John Bateman were still winning the battle upfront winning penalties at the ruck all afternoon, but constant miscommunication between the England side meant they came to nothing.
A second England try was correctly disallowed after a Jermaine McGillvary knock on.
One mistake I think that Bennett did make was bringing in Joe Greenwood as a prop. He had never played prop before and is highly skilful, and a big waste in the front row.
Chris Hill was the one let down in defence with his weak tackling allowing Kodi Nikorima through to score New Zealand’s third try in the first half.
It wasn’t just Joe Greenwood who seemed out of depth in this test though, both Richie Myler and Adam Milner didn’t make any positive impact on the game.
Josh Hodgson was leading the England pack from the front with 25 minutes to go but none of the backs seem to want the game.
Thompson, Burgess and Graham were laying the platform but England just could not get over the line without getting something wrong. A third try of the afternoon was chalked off as Tommy Makinson stepped into touch before diving over in the corner.
George Williams played extremely well but him and Myler didn’t connect as well as Tomkins and Williams had done the two weeks previously.
John Bateman and Elliott Whitehead were not as physically dominant than they had been in the first two tests but if they had got the service from their halfs they would have caused some damage.
With 10 minutes remaining and 22 points down, Jermaine McGillvary was sin-binned for a professional foul and New Zealand scored two late tries to make it 0-34 in Leeds. The gap in class isn’t as big as the scoreline would suggest.
The man of the match award was given to Tommy Makinson on the OurLeague app and that was well deserved despite not managing to take his try-scoring chances in this test.
In all, this test series showed that although we have a good set of prop forwards and yet another world class winger, we still do not have the half-back quality to create chances.
Lomax, Makinson, Connor, Gildart and McGillvary will most likely be the starting back five in the next England 17-man squad. Hodgson is still the number one English hooker and improved over the three tests. Richie Myler is nowhere near ready to play international rugby league.
Tomkins and Williams have most likely secured the half-back shirts for the next squad but Gareth Widdop will be looking at taking back one of those shirts or even Lomax’s full-back berth.
Let’s not forget that Kallum Watkins, Ryan Hall, Sam Burgess, Luke Gale and James Roby were also all unavailable for this test series so we do have some players to come back into the squad.
Overall, Bateman and Whitehead are the two second-rowers for Engoand for the foreseeable future with Thompson being a good utility forward to come off the bench for Sam Burgess who is likely to be the figurehead of the forward pack until at least the 2021 Rugby League World Cup.
Despite captaining the side in this series, James Graham will be 36 when the World Cup rolls around and he is already look sluggish when it comes to the final 15 minutes. Thompson has done well in this series so could easily replace the St George Illawarra Dragons player.
My player of the series is an extremely difficult decision to make but special mentions go to Luke Thompson, Jake Connor, and Elliott Whitehead but Tommy Makinson was absolutely outstanding over all three tests.
My 17 man squad for next seasons international fixtures based on current performances and England Knights players would be as follows:
- Gareth Widdop
- Tommy Makinson
- Kallum Watkins
- Jake Connor
- Jermaine McGillvary
- George Williams
- Sam Tomkins
- George Burgess
- Josh Hodgson
- Chris Hill
- John Bateman
- Elliott Whitehead
- Sam Burgess
- Daryll Clark
- Thomas Burgess
- Luke Thompson
- Jonny Lomax
I believe that James Roby and James Graham could potentially be involved, as could Sean O’Loughlin. However, I feel like Roby and Graham know that the future is now, they will not apart of the 2021 World Cup Squad so Bennett may leave them out.
O’Loughlin is constantly injured and you can’t have an unreliable player around your international squad.
With these 17 players above selected for the Elite 17-man squad it shows the depth of English Rugby League at the moment with the likes of Jamie Shaul, Oliver Holmes, Mark Percival, Paul McShane, Danny Houghton, Harvey Livett, Sam Powell and many more on the edge of being selected for England.
The future is bright and English supporters can be positive about a potential Ashes win in 2020.