By Carey Clements
A courageous New Zealand Universities and Tertiary Students Rugby League side gave one of its best ever fightbacks to beat England Universities 26-10 at the Gateshead International Stadium in Newcastle upon Tyne, on Saturday.
The win meant the two Test match series was drawn with one each after England had won the first Test encounter in Featherstone a week earlier.
In the lead up to the second Test, a bad tummy bug affected the majority of the players and team officials, causing some to be in bed for up to two days and miss training.
As a result, the Kiwi students went into the game completely focussed after having so many setbacks disrupt them and from the outset of the Test it happened when they scored the first try of the game in just the second minute before doubling their scoring four minutes later with a second unconverted try.
The remainder of the first quarter remained scoreless before a try to its right wing Nathan Hill in the 28th minute followed by a converted try to its left wing Joe Capless two minutes before the break put the home side up 10-8 at halftime.
In the second half, New Zealand played like a team from another planet as it not only held firm on defence and did not concede any points, but put on 18 points through some brilliance around its pivots Destry Tamai, Mikey Hollis and George Ropati.
Some highly effective storming runs by its second-row captain Jason Whareaitu, fullback Kane Talea, wing Ben Tunnicliff, late replacement centre Mitchell Vincent and loose forward Rory Ropati, also allowed New Zealand to regain lost territory just when England were starting to gain a sniff of getting over the line.
New Zealand however defended magnificently, especially by its outside backs, which had learned so many valuable lessons from the first Test and as a result ensured that overlaps were kept to a minimum by bundling their opponents over the sideline when on defence. On offence it was a similar pattern as a high completion sets of tackles meant that the home side were defending more on their side of halfway.
New Zealand scored three tries in the second half including one just on fulltime from a crashing dive at dummy half by its barging prop Mona Sio, who nearly 80 minutes earlier had scored the game’s first try from a similar movement. It was the first win by an NZUTSRL side over England Universities in England since the 1999 Student World Cup final.
Off the field, coach Kenny O’Brien ably assisted by his highly experienced assistants Ray Fitiao and Tea Ropati, were the true masterminds behind the win by making personnel, tactical and game preparation changes, which led to a highly impressive turnaround from the first Test defeat.
Overall the win meant that the NZUTSRL side came away with what it had set out to achieve for this short tour in blooding new players (15 in total) for the future, while at the same time giving them experience of playing in English conditions against a determined home side, who will be ready to host the next Student World Cup in 2021.