England debutant Jake Connor came off the interchange bench to inspire his country to a 36-18 win over New Zealand in their historic Test at Mile High Stadium on Saturday (Sunday, 6am AEST).
Wayne Bennett's men trailed 12-0 before Connor was thrust into action after a number of defensive lapses by five-eighth Jonny Lomax and set up two first-half tries before scoring one himself as England continued the form which took them to last year's World Cup final.
Connor, who usually plays centre for Hull FC, was intended to replace John Bateman about 10 minutes before halftime but was thrust into a play making role and he eased the pressure of halfback Gareth Widdop, who landed six goals and had a hand in two tries.
"Lomax took a knock and I knew I had to step up but Gaz Widdop played a massive role for me in creating space and helping me with things," Connor said.
"I am proud and honoured to get the opportunity to play with such a great England team and we have created history by coming to America and topping off a great week with a win,"
Canberra second rower Elliott Whitehead scored two tries for England in an entertaining Test which was watched by a crowd of 19,320, including South Sydney co-owner Russell Crowe, at the home of the Denver Broncos, as well as US television viewers on CBS Sports.
The impact of playing at altitude was noticable and the England players adapted better to pile on six tries to three after the Kiwis had dominated the early stages.
"We were struggling and they were playing all over us," Bennett said. "But they worked through that and at the end of the day it didn't become an issue for them."
New Kiwis coach Michael Maguire said errors had let his team down after their impressive start,
"Moments in Test matches change games and we kicked it dead three times," Maguire said. "We didn't need to put so much pressure on ourselves. We need to get that right blend of footy and we will challenge."
The crowd were still coming into the stadium up until half-time as American fans are used to arriving late because most of their sports go for much longer than 80 minutes.
Those who were there before kick-off saw Issac Luke lead the haka for New Zealand and two botched national anthems before a gripping contest featuring some big hits from the forwards and expansive play from both teams.
Match: New Zealand v England
Round 1 -
Venue: Mile High Stadium
- Fox League
- LIVE PASS
There were also some bizarre moments due to the altitude, with Luke kicking the ball over the dead ball line on the full from the opening kick-off of the match and again in the second half, while winger Jamayne Isaako did the same thing.
Widdop landed a 50-metre penalty goal with ease after Isaako’s 55th-minute mistake, while there was limited kicking in general play because the teams didn’t want to risk kicking the ball dead.
The Kiwis started the better and played an attacking brand of football in their first Test under Maguire, while forwards Martin Taupau and Nelson Asofa-Solomona kept the crowd entertained with some big hits in the opening minutes.
A late tackle by Taupau on Lomax went unpunished by referee Ben Thaler in the eighth minute and the Kiwis targeted him in defence.
Halfback Kodi Nikorima easily pushed Lomax off and drew England fullback Stefan Ratchford to put centre Esan Masters over for his first Test try in the 10th minute.
Marsters looked set to score again five minutes later when he beat three defenders in a long range break.
"He definitely showed some really good football," Maguire said of the Wests Tigers centre. "Down that right edge he skipped down the outside and he would come down the middle and he really troubled them on that side."
Bennett replaced Lomax with Connor and the move changed the momentum of the game, with Sam Burgess getting over the try line only to be held up, Tom Burgess bombing a try when he toed a loose ball over the dead ball line and then being denied by video referee Jared Maxwell.
However, it was New Zealand fullback Dallin Watene-Zelezniak who scored next after backing up a break by Luke, who beat Tom Burgess, to cross in the 28th minute.
Ryan Hall appeared to drop the ball over the line but was awarded England’s first try in the 33rd minute after Connor combined with Widdop before throwing a cut out pass to the winger.
Connor then put Whitehead over with a short pass to reduce New Zealand’s lead to 12-10 at half-time.
It was a different England side in the second half and Widdop levelled the scores in the 46th minute with a penalty goal after Luke stomped on the hand of England centre John Bateman in retaliation for an elbow to the throat while attempting to make a tackle.
Sam Burgess was cautioned after running to get involved as players from both sides came together.
England took control of the game following Whitehead’s second try in the 53rd minute after replacement Tommy Makinson swooped on a Widdop grubber.
A 56th-minute penalty goal by Widdop from halfway put England ahead 20-12 and Connor scored a try for himself when he beat Nikorima and Jared Waerea-Hargreaves before dummying past Watene-Zelezniak in the 60th minute.
Fellow rookie Makinson scored a long-range try in the 65th minute to put the result beyond doubt before Watene-Zelezniak scored a consolation try.
The only injury of note from the match was Kiwis second rower Raymond Faitala-Mariner, who suffered a broken hand.