A wonderful solo try from centre Oliver Gildart on his debut helped England to a hard-fought 18-16 victory in the opening match of the three-Test series against New Zealand.
England were trailing 16-14 when Gildart, a late call-up for the series, produced a moment of brilliance to light up a dour, at-times ferocious, battle and get the post-World Cup era under Wayne Bennett off to a dream start.
Bennett could call on just seven survivors from December’s World Cup final but he will be thrilled by the contribution of newcomers Gildart, Jake Connor, Luke Thompson and Tom Makinson, who all looked comfortable at international level.
There was also a welcome return for Sam Tomkins, playing under Bennett for the first time, who opened the scoring on his first appearance for England in four years.
Yet England were never comfortable against a Kiwis side fresh from an impressive 26-24 win over Australia but who once more found the KCOM Stadium an unhappy hunting ground as they went the way of their predecessors of 2011 and 2015.
England, who lost their inspirational captain Sean O’Loughlin to injury after only 14 minutes when they were 6-0 in front, were constantly kept on their guard by the prancing feet of their scourge over the years, stand-off Shaun Johnson.
They made a fine start with a try from Tomkins in the second minute after winger Makinson had re-gathered George Williams’ towering kick and Connor added the conversion.
However, the home side failed to build on it as the Kiwis came back strongly, equalising through centre Esan Marsters after half-backs Kodi Nikorima and Johnson opened up the England defence in ominously easy fashion.
New Zealand had a second try from winger Jordan Rapana disallowed by video referee Ben Thaler for a knock-on but they went in front nine minutes before half-time when Nikorima made the running for full-back Dallin Watene-Zelezniak to score straight from a scrum 40 minutes out.
Johnson’s second goal made it 12-6 but England drew level in controversial fashion on the stroke of half-time.
Connor forced his way over the line wide out only to be held up by Johnson but Watene-Zelezniak was pulled up for going into the tackle with his knees and referee Robert Hicks awarded a penalty try, to the dismay of the Kiwis captain and coach Michael Maguire.
Connor goaled the try to tie the scores at 12-12 and traded penalties with Johnson in the third quarter before the latter edged his side back in front in the 61st minute with a second penalty, awarded after Tom Burgess caught a ricochet in an offside position.
The pivotal moment came five minutes later when second rower John Bateman squeezed out a pass on halfway to his Wigan team-mate Gildart, who evaded the challenge of second rower Isaac Liu and held off the chasers on a 40-metre dash to the line for a glorious try.
The score lifted both the crowd and the England players as they held off a Johnson-inspired late flurry from the Kiwis to clinch a hard-earned victory.