By Brian Lowe, Date: 24/6/18
England has overcome a slow start to score a 36-18 come-from-behind win against New Zealand in Saturday’s Rugby League Football International Challenge in Denver.
“I love it. I’m proud of our game and anywhere in the world I could take it, I’d take it,” said England head coach Wayne Bennett.
“The other part for me that was really special is the players wanted to be here.”
New Zealand got off to a bad start when hooker Issac Luke put the opening kickoff behind the dead ball line, giving England an immediate advantage, but the Kiwis recovered and managed to repel England’s early attacks.
The game was an arm wrestle early on with neither side able to crack the other’s defense, but England five-eighth Jonny Lomax came off second best when he was felled in a late hit by a Kiwi tackler.
No penalty was given and then New Zealand put the pedal to the metal going the length of the field to score the first try of the match.
It was started by fullback Dallin Watene-Zelezniak from inside his own in-goal. He broke a couple of tackles before offloading to halfback Kodi Nikorima, who himself skirted free of would-be tacklers and dished the ball to center Esan Marsters who dotted down untouched.
The conversion by Jamayne Isaako was good for a 6-0 Kiwi lead about 12 minutes in.
England were their own worst enemy as passes weren’t sticking and there were few line breaks, as opposed to New Zealand, who made ground in most of their sets through to the water break at the midpoint of the first half.
England thought they had equalized in the 25th minute when replacement forward Tom Burgess looked to have crashed over near the uprights, but the video referee ruled he’d grounded the ball just short.
That was followed a few minutes later by Kiwi winger Isaako spilling the ball close to the line with it wide open, but they made amends three minutes after that when Watene-Zelezniak was on the end of a movement to dot down.
Isaako’s conversion was good for a 12-0 lead to New Zealand.
English pressure finally paid off when left winger Ryan Hall produced some magic to get the ball down in the corner while in mid-air and Widdop’s points after were successful to make it a 12-6 ballgame.
England went in again just before halftime when second-rower Elliott Whitehead crashed over the line to the right of the posts. Widdop’s conversion attempt missed to leave the score at 12-10 in New Zealand’s favor at the half.
The second forty started in much the same fashion with both teams throwing the ball around without managing to crack the opposition’s defensive patterns.
Super League referee Ben Thaler awarded England a penalty six minutes in when Issac stomped on the hand of an English player in the ruck. Widdop converted to even the scores at 12-12.
Six minutes later, England hit the front for the first time in the game when Whitehead finished off an attack to score his second try out wide. It followed some scrappy play by the Kiwis, who turned over possession and the English made them pay.
Widdop was good with the conversion for an 18-12 scoreline.
From the ensuing restart, New Zealand again kicked the ball dead giving England the option of a shot at goal and Widdop, figuring the altitude might help, was on the money from the halfway line to push the lead out to 20-12.
That gave the English momentum and center Jake Connor took advantage of an enterprising run of play by his teammates to sell the Kiwi fullback a sweet dummy allowing him to run in for a try. Widdop’s successful conversion made it 26-12 as the players paused for the second water break with 20 minutes left on the clock.
More scintillating play by England after that, combined with sloppy Kiwi tackling, saw replacement Tommy Makinson finish off a bust down the sideline to dot down under the posts leaving Widdop with an easy kick at goal to increase the lead to 32-12.
Just when it looked like England would run away with things, the Kiwis hit back when Watene-Zelezniak outlasted the defense to score a try out wide. It was set up by a Nikorima line break and Isaako converted to close the gap at 32-18.
However, the heat and altitude started to clearly take affect inside the final ten minutes as players on both teams dropped to their haunches whenever there was a stoppage in play and were slow to play the ball.
As the clock ran out, England center John Bateman crashed over the top of Kiwi defenders from a play the ball right on the goal line to score the final try of the match.
Englishman James Graham, who picked up his 40th cap in the game, was given the kicking duties but missed with the conversion to make the final score 36-18.
“The footy was great,” added Bennett. “There were some big hits, few arguments, few disagreements. Pretty typical afternoon of rugby league.
“I just hope they invite us back next year because I want to be here. It’s a great facility, great atmosphere and we’ve got to come back.”
The game marked the Test coaching debut for New Zealand head coach Michael Maguire and he says the Kiwis played well for the first 20 minutes before giving away their ascendancy.
“I was really confident going in if we could hold our structures and play the way they wanted to we’d be able to play some good footy,” he said.
“As an event I thought it was really good. Obviously, it’s new to America and I think our style of play at times really showed some good footy and the crowd came into the game.”
The official crowd number was put at 19,320.