It took them a while to get going, but England eventually ran out deserved winners in the first match of the Baskerville Shield series against New Zealand, winning 26-12 at the KC Stadium.
Steve McNamara’s side were simply brilliant in the second-half; defending aggressively, attacking with panache and looking full value for their victory by the end of Sunday’s televised clash.
Whilst England rightly earned praise for their win, it could have been a very different game had a few favourable decisions not going their way; Josh Hodgson’s try was awarded after a slice of fortune and the referee’s whistle sided with England at crucial stages throughout the match. Had that not been the case, the Kiwis could have been out of sight in the first 30 minutes following England’s lethargic start.
Stephen Kearney’s side are likely to be much improved come Saturday’s match in London, so England can, and must, be better if they are to wrap up the series.
Below are three areas where England must be better if they are to overcome New Zealand on Saturday.
Starting with intent
Whether they had underestimated the Kiwis or were overawed by the occasion, England were incredibly slow out of the blocks against New Zealand. A 10-0 deficit was a fair reflection of the game after 16 minutes, and in truth it could have been far worse had the world’s top-ranked side been at their clinical best. The performance on the pitch was replicated in the stands in the opening 30 minutes – flat. It is highly unlikely that the touring side will allow England to start so poorly and get away with it again.
Everyone expected a blistering start, with England trying to get in the faces of the Kiwis from the off, as is the general tactic at the start of a Test series of this magnitude; remember Adrian Morley in 2003? However, England lacked urgency or a willingness to ruffle up the Kiwis. Instead, they were bumped off tackles and bullied down the middle. The introductions of Brett Ferres and Tom Burgess swung the momentum, but the hosts cannot afford to rely on their bench to win them the game. The starting pack has to stamp their authority on the game from minute one and get what promises to be a huge crowd on their side, whilst the backs have to be more resolute near the line; New Zealand’s first try looked alarmingly easy.
If England can get on top and have New Zealand chasing the match, and the series. after the opening quarter, they will be in the perfect position to prevail.
Steve McNamara put faith in Wigan youngster George Williams, and after a shaky start to the match he proved worthy of his place in the team. He and Gareth Widdop’s relationship blossomed as the game went on, and by the end looked like a solid halfback pairing. However, a consistent problem was the predictable nature of England’s kicking game. Williams isn’t renowned for his kicking abilities, so the responsibility was put on the shoulders of Widdop. The NRL star is a superb kicker, but it was easy for New Zealand to anticipate England’s kicking threats.
Restricting the Kiwis to little field position is crucial, so chipping the ball over the top isn’t always a bright idea, but neither is allowing your opponents to gather the ball on the full repeatedly, particularly with the likes of Roger Tuivasa-Sheck and Jason Nightingale hovering around. England really need to put pressure on with the kicks, and to do so they must put Widdop in positions where he can really ask questions with the boot.
Alternatively, whilst Williams would be unfortunate to lose his spot, the introduction of Castleford’s Luke Gale would add a bit of unpredictability in the kicking department. Whether Gale’s kicking skills are more important than Williams’ ability to run at the line remain to be seen.
Admit it, how many of you were screaming at your TV as New Zealand offloaded seemingly every tackle? England were really sloppy in contact and made it far, far too easy for the Kiwis to offload. Their ability to release the ball caused chaos in the England defence and allowed the likes of Tuivasa-Sheck to exploit the space created in broken play.
England’s pack proved over the course of the 80 minutes that they can more than compete with New Zealand’s forwards, but they must prevent the Kiwis from offloading as much as they did in the first Test match. Defending in numbers and being more aggressive in the initial contact are improvements England have to make ahead of Saturday.