ELLIOT Whitehead was the hero with a pair of trys to help England claim the Baskerville trophy outright – and a first series win over the Southern Hemisphere team since Great Britain in 2007.
But it was the Wigan and England captain Sean O’Loughlin who sealed the win eight minutes from time and was given the Man of the Series award after three faultless displays in the white jersey.
England didn’t have it all their own way though, and had to endure a nervy final few minutes after O’Loughlin scored when first Roger Tuivasa-Sheck and then Jordan Kahu scored to leave the final score 20-14 after leading by 10 points.
In front of a sell-out crowd at the DW Stadium, England settled any nerves they may have had after an early penalty put them 2-0 up inside five minutes – and it was New Zealand who looked the more nervy as the rain began to fall steadily in Wigan.
After calls for Jermaine McGillvary to be included in the starting line up, head coach Steve McNamara finally gave the Huddersfield winger his debut.
And he didn’t look out of place, making a try saving tackle as Jason Nightingale looked destined to score, before making a number of lung-bursting breaks through the Kiwis defence.
By the time Whitehead scored the first of his trys just before the half hour mark, England looked like the team that started this series in Hull, and were starting to play with a little more freedom than they did at Olympic Park last week.
A little under 10 minutes later though, the try of the game was scored by Nightingale as he acrobatically flew through the air to touch down in the corner and, with Issac Luke converting from the sideline, the score at the break was 8-6.
The second half began very flat, and it was the Kiwis who looked the better with ball in hand, Tuivasa-Sheck broke but came up short and then Brett Ferres forced a knock on from Jesse Bromwich, allowing England to hold their line intact.
It wasn’t until the 62nd minute that England began to look comfortable, when James Graham made a wonderful break, offloading to Whitehead who crossed for his second of the game and Widdop made it 14-6.
It was to be O’Loughlin though who put the icing on the cake though with a tough bust under the posts, taking two defenders with him to score and make it 20-6.
The Kiwis were not out of it yet though, and in shades of the World Cup Final two years ago, they looked like they could still nick the game from England.
And, with six minutes left, Tuivasa-Sheck scored after a flick pass from Nightingale to make it 20-10, hotly followed by a score by Shaun Kenny-Dowall to make England look nervous at 20-14 after Luke managed to hit the post with his conversion attempt.
“The players deserve this win. It’s not the same group who lost in 2013, but the foundations those players laid have borne fruit here,” head coach McNamara said after the game.
He was circumspect though when pressed about his own future within the role of coach.
“That’s a conversation I’ve always said I’d have after the tournament, and the choice isn’t mine to make, its for others to decide…I want to carry on.
“I’m a big advocate of international games. The NRL and Super League need to get their calendars in sync. It’s been a real test this series, regardless of results.”
England: Hardaker, McGillvary, Watkins, Bateman, Hall, Widdop, Smith, Graham, Hodgson, Hill, Whitehead, Farrell, McLoughlin (c).
Interchange: Roby, Burgess, Cooper, Ferres.
New Zealand: Tuivasa-Sheck, Nightingale, Kahu, Whare, Kenny-Dowall, Hiku, Nikorima, Bromwich, Luke (c), Moa, Proctor, Harris, Blair, Brown, Taupau, Matulino, Glenn.
England: (8) 20
Tries: Whitehead 2, O’Loughlin
Goals: Widdop 4
New Zealand: (6) 14
Tries: Nightingale, Tuivasa-Sheck, Kahu
Referee: Ben Thaler (England)
By Andie Riley at the DW Stadium