SOME people may have wondered if England had much chance against New Zealand when their record try-scorer Ryan Hall was, like so many leading players, ruled out of this series due to major knee surgery in August.
They need not have worried. His replacement Tommy Makinson, the St Helens winger who only debuted in Denver in June, scored a dream hat-trick to deliver his country a stunning victory in a fascinating second Test at Anfield today and clinch the series.
The 27-year-old has had to bide his time to make it on the biggest stage of all but, in a pulsating contest, he certainly delivered here.
Makinson’s brilliant solo try in the 74th minute that completed his treble was worthy of winning any series, let alone any game, as he leant backwards to collect Jake Connor’s pass and then slalomed infield with a remarkable run to pierce the stunned Kiwis.
It capped a great comeback from Wayne Bennett’s side who trailed 14-6 early in the second period but now head to Elland Road next Sunday with the Baskerville Shield already secured looking to complete a 3-0 whitewash.
A melee sparked, by Kiwi James Fisher-Harris’ late hit on Sam Tomkins, fired up the hosts and proved the catalyst for their resurgence in a fiercely-contested Test match.
Connor, the Hull FC centre, provided a lovely assist with an overhead, no-look pass for Makinson - long-listed for Wednesday's Golden Boot - to scamper in for his second try in the 57th minute.
From thereon in, Bennett’s side looked the most dangerous, much like the previous week in Hull.
Kiwi winger Jordan Rapana spilled a simple Tomkins kick behind his own line to gift England another set of six which saw Tom Burgess storm over only to be held up between the posts.
But the hosts pressed further and, after Rapana dropped possession on halfway, Connor came to the fore again to level the game.
It was a smart blindside move initiated by Josh Hodgson that saw Elliott Whitehead give Connor space and the 24-year-old - awarded a penalty try last week - twisted through Joseph Manu to finish.
Unfortunately, his conversion attempt hit a post but the home side had, after a difficult opening, found their rhythm at the critical time.
Indeed, they almost pressed ahead when Jonny Lomax, the impressive St Helens full-back, sent Makinson clear again only to see the ball bounce forward. It was his only error in the game.
He soon made up for it with that electric finish and Tomkins - taking over from Connor - tagged on the extras as Bennett secured the first series success of his reign.
Luke Thompson and John Bateman were colossal up front for England and Hodgson impressed, too, while Castleford Tigers’ Adam Milner made a brief debut off the bench.
Yet, for all the end result, England will have been happy to have gone in at 6-6 having had little decent attacking ball and spent most of the first period dealing with ferocious Kiwi pack that truly looked in the mood to cause some damage.
It was not just their forwards either; robust winger Ken Maumalo came infield and sent Oliver Gildart flying backwards, full-back Dallin Watene-Zelezniak returned a kick directly at Elliott Whitehead that had the England second-row marching backwards and so it went on.
To their credit, however, Bennett’s side rarely buckled, a trait that is becoming increasingly common with this squad.
Their line was only breached once and that was down to a simple one-on-one miss from Tomkins, the half-back who seemed surprised as Watene-Zelezniak entered the line and pressed on the accelerators to comfortably arc past him from 10 metres out in the ninth minute.
Shaun Johnson converted and it came in response to Connor’s early penalty after Jesse Bromwich hit Tomkins late after the pass, sparking the first of a number of melees.
Thereafter, though, England fiercely protected their line.
Makinson, in particular, was put under pressure but not once, not twice but three times denied Kiwi thrusts.
He clung on to thwart Rapana just as the Kiwi winger looked ready to stretch over and then, crucially, got a hand under the ball when his opponent did get over the line.
Most impressive, though, was when the Dream Team wideman attached himself like a limpet to the thundering Kevin Proctor and somehow halted the Melbourne Storm second-row as he marauded through on the last tackle.
Part of the reason England were under almost persistance pressure, though, was their own ball control or, more precisely, lack of it.
Gildart the Wigan centre whose stunning debut try proved the match-winner in the first Test, struggled here, twice spilling under little pressure while, on the opposite side, Connor was forced into mistakes as he diced with the touchline.
The Hull FC centre also had a kick charged down while George Williams gave away a needless penalty when blocking Shaun Johnson.
England, who improved once Daryl Clark came onto inject some pace at hooker, did have chances.
Hodgson, for instance, scurried through just short and George Burgess was held up over the line following one barrelling run.
They did score, though, after 39 minutes with their best move of the half after Williams’ grubber forced a drop-out.
It was the Wigan half-back who sent a long, looping cut-out pass that was so well-executed Makinson did not have to check his stride before jubilantly diving in at the corner to level the contest.
New Zealand went 12-6 ahead when Watene-Zelezniak, their inspirational captain, made a scintillating break to send Ken Maumalo over in the 45th minute for Johnson to convert.
Johnson added a penalty soon after but Bennett’s side showed no signs of cowing even after the loss of Clark to a painful rib injury.
England: Lomax; McGillvary, Gildart, Connor, Makinson; Williams, Tomkins, Williams; T Burgess, Hodgson, Graham, Bateman, Whitehead, Thompson. Substitutes: Milner, Hill, G Burgess, Clark.
New Zealand: Watene-Zelezniak; Rapana, Manu, Marsters, Maumalo; Johnson, Nikorima; Bromwich, Smith, Warera-Hargreaves, Proctor, Liu, Blair. Substitutes: Bromwich, Ah Mau, Taupau, Fisher-Harris.
Referee: Gerard Sutton (Australia)