New Zealand opened their Four Nations defence with a thrilling 17-16 win over England to hand rookie coach David Kidwell his first win in charge of the national side. A dour first half exploded into life after the break, with Shaun Johnson's field goal 15 minutes from the end proving the difference.
A classic game of two halves
We can't be certain as to what was said in the sheds at half-time, but whatever it was turned a grinding first 40 minutes into a thrilling second stanza that had footy fans thanking their lucky stars that they turned down the lure of some shuteye in favour of rugby league of the highest order. The first half failed to live up to the hype as the sides combined for three penalty goals and just the one try, but things quickly changed after the break as both teams traded their conservative ways for all-out attack. The teams put on some stunning tries in the second half, but both sides would lament the fact they probably pushed a couple of passes that didn't need to be thrown; Sam Burgess's Hail Mary between-the-legs offload with five minutes to go the perfect example.
Penalty goals come back to haunt England
England's decision to take two shots at goal inside the opening 10 minutes should have come as no surprise given Wayne Bennett's penchant for taking the points whenever they're on offer. It's a tactic the master coach has employed wherever he's gone, and while it has worked well in the past, it proved costly for the English on this occasion. There was nothing wrong with taking the first shot at goal, but eyebrows were raised when they increased their lead to four points when they had all the momentum. It continues a trend for Bennett's teams with the Brisbane Broncos kicking 48 penalty goals from 53 matches since he re-joined the club at the start of the 2015 season, while the Dragons knocked over 19 penalties in their premiership-winning 2010 campaign (seven more than the second-best Sea Eagles and Warriors). Interestingly, the English turned down a gift two points early in the second half that would have cut the gap to a converted try. Instead, Jermaine McGillvary crashed over to justify the more attack-minded decision. In the end, the game had an eerily familiar feel to the 2015 NRL grand final where Bennett's Broncos kicked a pair of penalty goals but lost the match 17-16.
New Zealand's attack better, but still far from perfect
With the Melbourne Cup just around the corner, punters are bound to hear the term 'last-start form' on an almost hourly basis over the coming days. That saying also holds weight in rugby league, but it wasn't on show in Huddersfield as the Kiwis' recent struggles with ball in hand didn't entirely extend to English soil. New Zealand scored just one try in their two Tests against the Kangaroos this year, while they averaged just under 12 points per game on their tour to the UK at the end of 2015. They certainly have their excuses with key weapons Kieran Foran and Roger Tuivasa-Sheck on the sidelines, but with Shaun Johnson playing behind a formidable pack of forwards, scoring points shouldn't be an issue. They were flat in the first half, but drastically improved in the second stanza. That said, the English weren't inspiring with ball in hand either as the halves pairing of Gareth Widdop and Luke Gale failed to fire.
Shaun Johnson's kicking game on fire
While it was all England for the first 20 minutes, Shaun Johnson's right boot helped turn the match on its head in the second quarter of the match to pin the English backs in-goal with deft grubbers. The dynamic No.7 forced several repeat sets, with Jordan Rapana grabbing the game's opening four-pointer on the back of one of those line dropouts. As good as his kicking game was, the Kiwis halfback didn't register any running metres in the first half, and never looked to explore the left side of the field. He did play a key role in Rapana's try, but it would be great to see him take the line on a lot more. Thankfully for NZ fans, it took him just one minute to make his mark in the second half as he gleefully intercepted a Gareth Widdop pass and easily sprinted away to once again break English hearts. Fittingly, it was his right boot that got the Kiwis home as his drop goal 15 minutes from full-time proved the difference between the two sides.
Green Machine rolls on in the UK
Two of Canberra's best players in 2016 continued their dream years with impressive showings in Huddersfield. New Zealand's Jordan Rapana added to his 23 tries in the NRL with a double on Sunday morning (AEDT) in what was just his second Test for the black and whites. His first effort was a typical winger's try as he finished off a slick backline movement, but his second try was a perfect illustration of why he is regarded one of the best outside backs in the world at the moment. Instead of staying on his right wing, Rapana came infield looking for an offload and was rewarded for his initiative as he latched onto a Manu Ma'u pass to complete his double. His teammate at the Raiders, Josh Hodgson, was just about the best of a beaten bunch as he brought his terrific NRL form back home to try to spark England with his usual dynamism around the ruck.