The Kiwis’ grinding 9-2 second Test victory over England in London – their lowest-scoring success in 55 years – has kept alive their hopes of winning a series in the United Kingdom for the first time since 1998.
The world’s top-ranked nation went into Saturday’s clash at the Olympic Stadium desperate to win to keep the series alive following a disappointing first-up 12-26 loss in Hull last week.
In the event the Kiwis achieved their mission ensuring next Saturday’s encounter in Wigan has given them the chance of taking a series in England for just the third time; in 1971 the Kiwis beat Great Britain 2-1 while in 1998 they prevailed 2-0 with the last Test drawn.
Saturday’s contest was a real old school encounter, a throwback to matches of yesteryear when single figure scores for both teams weren’t necessarily regular but they weren’t uncommon either.
In this case the Kiwis and England were locked at 2-2 at halftime before right wing Shaun Kenny-Dowall scored what would be the only try of the match in the opening minutes of the second half.
It came courtesy of some splendid ball work and handling skills, halfback Kodi Nikorima – revealed as a late replacement for Tuimoala Lolohea – somehow offloading in contact with second rower Tohu Harris brilliantly picking up and shipping a ball to his right where Kenny-Dowall collected a pass on the volley to score wide out. Jordan Kahu converted and the Kiwis had an important 8-2 lead.
There were key moments that followed when the New Zealanders could have and should have extended their advantage to make the result safe; both Peta Hiku and Nikorima were denied tries by England’s belligerent defence and late in the battle Issac Luke missed a fairly straightforward penalty which would have given the Kiwis a match-winning 10-2 lead.
The slip-ups kept England in the hunt despite the Kiwis dominating the contest in almost every respect.
Against the flow of the game, the home side had an opening to draw level, James Roby sliding through a grubber which James Graham pounced on for what initially appeared to be a try between the posts; it would have evened it up at 8-8 with the easy conversion. Referee Gerard Sutton certainly thought it was a try but sent it to the video referees for review where, to the Kiwis’ eternal relief, it was apparent Graham had failed to ground the ball. It was ruled a knock-on, the Kiwis had a restart on the 20 and soon after Kahu made the result safe – at last – with a field goal.
The upshot was a score-line of 9-2 and an aggregate of just 11 points, the fewest in a winning New Zealand effort since beating France 9-0 at the 1960 World Cup.
After that 1960 result there had been instances of fewer aggregate points including a 0-8 loss against Australia in Rotorua in 1989, a 3-3 draw against France in Toulouse in 1971 and a 2-6 outcome against France in 1965 but the Kiwis had failed to win on those occasions.
They now head back to the north of England where they will set their sights on just the third series victory by an official New Zealand team in the United Kingdom in more than 100 years.
Key to the their hopes will be co-captain and Vodafone Warriors-bound Issac Luke who was named man of the match in London after a typically wholehearted display when he tormented England throughout.
Harris was exceptional with his 80-minute effort, too, while the Kiwis benefited from a much more assertive contribution from their bench players with Lewis Brown, Martin Taupau, Ben Matulino and Alex Glenn all making an impact when they were used.
Match details | Olympic Stadium, London
England 2 (Gareth Widdop penalty).
Kiwis 9 (Shaun Kenny-Dowall try; Issac Luke conversion, penalty; Jordan Kahu field goal).
Referee: Gerard Sutton (Australia).
Kiwis | Roger Tuivasa-Sheck; Jason Nightingale, Dean Whare, Jordan Kahu, Shaun Kenny-Dowall; Peta Hiku, Kodi Nikorima; Jesse Bromwich, Issac Luke (co-captain), Sam Moa; Kevin Proctor, Tohu Harris; Adam Blair (co-captain). Interchange: Lewis Brown, Martin Taupau, Ben Matulino, Alex Glenn.
England | Zak Hardaker; Joe Burgess, Kallum Watkins, John Bateman, Ryan Hall; Gareth Widdop, George Williams; James Graham, Josh Hodgson; Chris Hill; Elliott Whitehead; Liam Farrell; , Sean O’Loughlin (c). Interchange: James Roby, Thomas Burgess, Mike Cooper, Brett Ferres.