Two tries from second-rower Elliott Whitehead helped England to a tense 20-14 victory over New Zealand in Wigan to complete a 2-1 series win.
England were forced to withstand a late onslaught by the Kiwis, who scored two tries in the last seven minutes, before they could celebrate a first series triumph since the 2007 New Zealanders were thrashed 3-0 by Great Britain.
Steve McNamara was assistant coach in that series eight years ago and Saturday’s victory looks sure to keep him in the role as part-time national boss up to and including the 2017 World Cup.
Defeat against a New Zealand side robbed of the experience of a host of regulars, including half-backs Shaun Johnson and Kieran Foran, might have cost McNamara his job but, without being at their fluent best, his England side demonstrated enough courage and tenacity to see the job through.
McNamara responded to the 9-2 second-Test defeat by giving a debut to winger Jermaine McGillvary and a recall to scrum-half Matty Smith and both selections proved justified.
Smith, on the receiving end of England’s heart-breaking defeats by the Kiwis in both the 2013 World Cup and last year’s Four Nations Series, was named man of the match on his return while skipper Sean O’Loughlin also impressed on his home ground to take the man-of-the-series award.
O’Loughlin put the finishing touches to the victory with England’s third try, which meant the backs went through the series without scoring but that merely demonstrated the current strength of the side.
From the start, defences were once more on top but, unlike in the second Test, there was much more to entertain the crowd.
For the second successive week Gareth Widdop opened the scoring with an early penalty and the Kiwis’ defence was subjected to a pummelling as England began brightly.
However, New Zealand were again the more inventive team as they defied the steady rain to take their offload game to their opponents and left winger Jason Nightingale saw more ball in the first 20 minutes than in the whole of the first two Tests.
The best of his three early chances came after a clean break by hooker Issac Luke but England scrambled magnificently to keep their line intact and ended a period of 106 minutes without a try when Whitehead pounced on Smith’s grubber kick for his first score.
Widdop’s conversion made it 8-0 but England’s defence eventually cracked five minutes before half-time when Nightingale produced an acrobatic finish to elude the flying tackle of full-back Zak Hardaker. Luke’s touchline goal cut the deficit to just two points.
With makeshift half-backs Peta Hiku and Kodi Nikorima a constant threat, the Kiwis had the momentum for most of the third quarter as England clung on desperately to their lead.
The pivotal moment came on the hour when Whitehead, the Catalans Dragons forward who will ply his trade in the NRL with Canberra next season, was taken high by Jordan Kahu and the relieving penalty enabled England to turn defence into attack.
Moments later Whitehead got on the end of some neat passing from James Graham and Smith to force his way over for his second try and Widdop’s third goal put two scores between the teams.
The victory was effectively sealed on 71 minutes when O’Loughlin summoned enough strength to tear his way through a jaded defence for a third try and Widdop maintained his 100 per cent record with the boot to make it 20-6.
The celebrations clearly began prematurely as England relaxed and late tries from full-back Roger Tuivasa-Sheck and Kahu meant they had to endure an anxious few moments before Whitehead booted a loose ball into touch to bring an absorbing series to a memorable close.