TWL TEST WRAP: ENGLAND OVERPOWER RAGGED KIWIS

New Zealand’s Michael Maguire-led era began in decidedly David Kidwell-like fashion, conceding 32 unanswered points in a dismal 36-18 loss to Wayne Bennett’s clinical England in Denver.

The Kiwis dominated the opening half-hour, building a 12-0 lead and breaking the England defensive line at will. But the remainder of their performance was laced with patches of incompetence that made last year’s World Cup campaign look respectable.

Fielding seven debutants, the Kiwis’ lack of experience and leadership was telling. They wilted defensively and ball security went out the window as the Colorado altitude and summer heat took effect. Their last-tackle options were appalling, with halves Kodi Nikorima and Te Maire Martin both refusing to take responsibility for steering the team around.

England, headlined by the class of Gareth Widdop and an unbelievable all-round display from second-rower Elliot Whitehead amid a host of high-quality performers, stayed composed after the early onslaught to surge to their first overseas win against New Zealand since 1992.

There were some notable positives for Maguire and Kiwis fans, however.

Fullback Dallin Watene-Zelezniak was outstanding in easily his best Test performance with two tries and some magnificent play at his own end, Wests Tigers tyro Esan Marsters constantly troubled the England defence, and Nelson Asofa-Solomona took the step from impact forward to starting front-row enforcer with aplomb.

From a neutral perspective, the historic Test was full of attacking entertainment, ferocious defence and more than a little bit of spite. But as a spectacle it was repeatedly blunted by English referee Ben Thaler’s excruciating delays in restarting play – so blatant it had to be to squeeze in ads for the US television coverage.

Quite possibly the worst rendition of the New Zealand national anthem of all time was also perhaps a fitting omen for the match ahead.

After booting the kick-off out on the full, the Kiwis took little time to get on top with some bruising defence – Asofa-Solomona and Peta Hiku, in particular, determined for the match to live up to its ‘big hits, no pads’ slogan.

Nikorima busted the game open in the 11th minute, powering through an awful attempted tackle from England pivot Jonny Lomax and finding centre debutant Marsters backing up on the inside to finish off a 50-metre try.

New Zealand’s offloading and incisive running had the World Cup runners-up in frequent trouble, but England managed to reach the quarter-time drinks break without any further scoreboard damage.

The intermission upset the Kiwis’ momentum and they received a major let-off when a small knock-on from Tom Burgess denied England its first four-pointer. Seconds late Marsters broke into open spaces but winger Jamayne Isaako couldn’t handle the pass with the line wide open.

Great second-phase play from the rampaging Asofa-Solomona – nicknamed ‘The Big Nasty’, as Daryl Halligan relentlessly reminded viewers – gave Issac Luke the chance to cut up the England defence. Watene-Zelezniak marked a superb first half by supporting the Kiwis’ spiritual leader and dotting down.

Leeson Ah Mau narrowly missed out on putting New Zealand further in front soon after but England landed a vital blow eight minutes out from halftime courtesy of a brilliant finish from burly wing veteran Ryan Hall.

But the try – green-lighted by video ref Jared Maxwell – was a controversial one: a replay angle not viewed by Maxwell showed Hall dropped the ball. Gareth Widdop nevertheless nailed the sideline conversion for 12-6.

England narrowed the gap to two points just before the break as Elliot Whitehead steamed through lax right-edge defence from the Kiwis.

Widdop levelled up after 46 minutes following a grubby little hand-stamp from Luke on England centre John Bateman.

The St George Illawarra half’s vision provided England with its first lead with 28 minutes left, rolling a grubber through for Tommy Makinson who found Whitehead backing up for his second.

Widdop then took advantage of the altitude, extending the lead to 20-12 with an easy-as-you-like penalty goal from halfway after the Kiwis again put the kick-off dead on the full.

New Zealand was imploding in spectacular fashion.

The Kiwis effectively handed the result to England with an embarrassing defensive effort that allowed bench debutant Jake Connor – who laid on Whitehead’s first try – to step, bump and dummy his way to a 40-metre solo try.

Chasing the scoreboard, the black-and-whites’ attack became desperate, ragged and aimless.

England capitalised when the remarkable Whitehead swooped on a dropped ball and eventually found Makinson, who finished off a 90-metre counterattacking movement.

Luke made up for an inexplicable third dead-on-the-full kick-off by slicing through and setting up a thrilling try for DWZ.

But England finished the match in deserving style, Bateman forcing his way over from close range before 40-Test hero James Graham sprayed the obligatory milestone conversion attempt after fulltime.

The nature of the result emphatically confirmed England’s claims to the No.2 spot in world rugby league. But if Tohu Harris, Shaun Johnson and co. can be bothered/are allowed to tour at the end of the year and some of New Zealand’s injured brigade are available, the rivals will put one hell of a series on in the Old Dart at the end of the year.

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