England 18-16 New Zealand: Oliver Gildart try seals narrow win in series opener

Debutant Oliver Gildart scored the crucial try as England kicked off their three-match test series against New Zealand with a tense win.

Wigan centre Gildart took an offload from team-mate John Bateman before stepping past full-back Dallin Watene-Zelezniak for a superb solo score.

Wayne Bennett’s men then hung on in the desperate closing stages and now face further test matches in Liverpool and Leeds.

They had taken an early lead with Sam Tomkins’ try in his first England game for four years, before responses from Esan Marsters and Watene-Zelezniak but the Kiwis ahead.

But a penalty try from Jake Connor just before the break levelled the scores at the break, and after the teams exchanged penalties, Gildart came up with his decisive play.

Here’s five talking points from the game…

1. Flying start for England

It wasn’t always the perfect performance, but an opening win against a New Zealand side that beat Australia just a fortnight ago is a major result for England.

Too many times in the modern era the national side has lost close contests like this against the Southern Hemisphere heavyweights, but they dug deep when it mattered most and came up with a try worthy of winning any game through Oliver Gildart.

The match has set the scene for what will follow over the next fortnight, with Sam Tomkins settling straight back in the international fold and Jake Connor’s battle with Joseph Manu one to watch in coming matches.

There were some almighty collisions up front and the two packs will continue to go at it at Anfield and Elland Road.

There is plenty more to come from these two well-match teams.

2. Gildart justifies selection

Wayne Bennett’s team selections have caused huge debate among supporters ever since he was appointed, and few more than the consistent overlooking of centre Mark Percival.

The St Helens man was forced to watch the majority of the World Cup while back rower John Bateman played in the three-quarters, and was again omitted for this game in favour of late call-up Oliver Gildart.

Gildart had been supposed to be in Papua New Guinea with England Knights before Sam Burgess was ruled out through injury, and then leap-frogged original selections Percival and Reece Lyne to start in Hull.

It capped a superb season for the Wigan player, and it hit new heights when he raced clear in the final quarter and stood up Kiwi full-back Dallin Watene-Zelezniak for a superb individual try.

On this evidence, a long international career awaits.

3. Brilliant Bradford boys shine again

John Bateman and Elliott Whitehead will reunite in Australia next year for Canberra, after starting their careers with hometown Bradford.

That’s a mouth-watering prospect for Raiders fans after both produced huge performances against the Kiwis.

Bateman – named in the back row rather than centre although he did have a short stint covering the three-quarter line – created two tries while man of the match Whitehead’s work-rate was superb throughout.

They are key figures in this England side and should be for years to come.

4. Kiwis will come again

After his 2013 and 2016 exploits against England, it was a refreshing change not to be reflecting on more match-winning Shaun Johnson heroics.

The former Golden Boot winner did show glimpses of his brilliance – particularly in creating Esan Marsters’ first half try – while his half-back partner Kodi Nikorima also caused plenty of problems.

This was only New Zealand’s third game under new coach Michael Maguire, and his influence is likely to grow as the series unfolds.

Expect an even better Kiwi side come Anfield next weekend.

5. The national side deserves a grander platform

After the entirely forgettable event that was France on a Wednesday night in Leigh, the attendance in Hull was again well below par.

A figure of 17,649 was 5,877 down on the 23,526 that attended the same clash here just three years ago and the empty seats were there for all to see.

Promotion of the national side too often feels like an after-thought to Super League, which is a huge shame given its potential and the fact that this team was playing in a World Cup final less than 12 months ago.

With the last two test matches at the significantly bigger Anfield and Elland Road, it might be too late to reverse that this year, but long-term a focused strategy on England needs to be implemented.

The BBC’s stirring opening video with former captain Jamie Peacock was exactly the kind of thing that needs to be widely circulated well in advance of test matches in this country.

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