England have a “pretty special” rugby league team who want to “rattle the cages of Australia and New Zealand”, head coach Wayne Bennett says.
The hosts held firm to narrowly defeat the Kiwis 18-16 in the opening match of the three-game series in Hull.
“It was a wonderful game, the boys have given everything they’ve got,” the Australian-born coach said.
“I hope you all realise you’ve got a pretty special footy team. The English should be really proud of them.”
- Match report: Oliver Gildart’s impressive debut try earns victory
- All you need to know about the Test series
The second Test is on 4 November in Liverpool, with the final Test to be played on 11 November in Leeds.
England are ranked third in the world behind world champions Australia and New Zealand. Last year, Bennett’s side came close to claiming their first World Cup since 1954 but were defeated 6-0 by the Aussies in a tense final.
From that game, captain Sam Burgess, James Roby, Kallum Watkins, Ryan Hall and Gareth Widdop were all missing, and Bennett said “about 10 guys” from the tournament’s squad were unavailable on Saturday.
Despite their depleted contingent, England put in a solid defensive display and have now beaten New Zealand in their last two meetings, after defeating them in Denver earlier this year.
After Saturday’s game, Bennett said: “They are a great group of guys. They work really hard. We couldn’t have given any more, we didn’t have a bad player.
“We’re building some depth, which is important, and we’re building a lot of young men with desire who really want to rattle the cages of Australia and New Zealand.
“It was important for both teams to play like we did today to show everybody that it’s a full-on Test series.
“It’s the best of three games and I’ve no doubt next week won’t be any easier. It will be tougher because New Zealand will want to win.”
Gildart try ‘great to watch’
England took the lead through Sam Tomkins’ early try and, although New Zealand hit back, debutant Olivier Gildart scored a stunning solo match-winning try in the second half.
St Helens winger Tommy Makinson also impressed in just his second appearance for the country in place of injured Leeds Rhinos winger Ryan Hall.
“Tommy was outstanding, I just couldn’t believe what he did,” Bennett said. “The more bodies they put in front of him, the harder he ran at them.”
Of Gildart’s brilliant effort, the coach said: “It was a great centre’s try, we don’t see enough of them. He did a great job from 50m, beat two or three players on the way, it was great to watch.”
Bennett also revealed that Wigan loose forward Sean O’Loughlin suffered a recurrence of a long-standing calf injury and is a major doubt for next Sunday’s game at Anfield.
‘All about pressure’
New Zealand went into the game on the back of beating Australia to end the Kangaroos’ 13-game winning streak.
There was some controversy regarding England’s second try, which was awarded to Jake Connor as a penalty try.
Centre Connor, playing on his home ground at the KCOM Stadium, was held up over the tryline by Shaun Johnson and did not place the ball down, but the effort was given when video referee Ben Thaler adjudged that Kiwis captain and full-back Dallin Watene-Zelezniak had led with the knees in the tackle.
New Zealand coach Michael Maguire said: “I’ll have to have another look before make a comment, but it’s one of those moments you’ve got to be able to handle and get through.
“The game was there to take for both teams. I think they applied a bit more pressure than we did.
“We will get a fair bit out of that one, obviously from what we did a couple of weeks ago to where we are today shows the difference in Test match football is all about pressure.
“At the end of the day it’s all part of the game, it’s about how we respond and I am really looking forward to that.”
‘A battle of attrition’ – what they said:
- England forward and man of the match Elliot Whitehead: “We knew it would be a tough game and we have trained hard and prepared well. Both teams defended well and we had to be mentally tough and they put the ball round us and tested us.”
- England match-winner Oliver Gildart: “To score the winning try was unbelievable. I just backed myself, saw a bit of space and luckily got over. It happened really quickly. I sprinted as fast as I could, looked up to see the full-back and tried to beat him.”
- England centre Jake Connor: “They were giving it, so you have to give it back, you cannot back down. What a game it was.”
- England full-back Jonny Lomax: “It was a great performance and a battle of attrition, the players had to dig in deep and show up for each other until the end.”
- New Zealand skipper Dallin Watene-Zelezniak: “We did not play to the best of our ability, we did not execute like we wanted to. We have to go and do our homework and come back bigger and better next week.”
Analysis – Defence the difference
Former England assistant Denis Betts on BBC One:
What a fantastic Test match it was.
For the last four years, coach Wayne Bennett has been going on about defence and how defences win you Test matches. He talks about getting off your line, making your tackles, keeping yourself solid – and that is what England did today.
Don’t stop wanting to defend, don’t stop wanting to protect your team-mates, don’t give up on the fight in the contact because you can defend better than the opposition, and Oliver Gildart comes out with something from nothing and wins the game for his side.
Former Great Britain coach Brian Noble on BBC One:
John Bateman epitomised England’s performance. It was tough, durable, solid and they were not flashy. I thought Tommy Makinson was outstanding – he got the team rolling.
To follow Ryan Hall in respect of what he did in the World Cup – he made metres and got the team going forward. I thought it was a high-standard game and the separation was the Gildart try towards the end.
England’s win sets the series up fantastically well because New Zealand have to show their hand now. They have to play a bit more expansively [and] show the entertainment value we have seen over the years.