Shaun Johnson’s 65th minute drop-goal was the difference at the John Smiths Stadium as New Zealand edged out England.
Ryan Hall’s try following a spectacular pass from Gareth Widdop had pulled England back level along with Widdop’s conversion.
Jordan Rapana crossed for a try in either half and Johnson scored a 75-yard interception in the first minute of the second half to make it a difficult afternoon for Wayne Bennett’s men.
Hometown boy Jermaine McGillvary powered over following Johnson’s try to keep England in the game but the home side never regained the lead once the Kiwis got ahead.
England had set the pace early on as Widdop sank two penalty goals inside the first ten minutes.
New Zealand’s victory means they now sit 2nd in the Four Nations table behind Australia who they face next weekend in the double-header at the Ricoh Arena. England will face Scotland with both sides looking to get off the mark in this year’s competition.
Dave Kidwell named the same Kiwi side that fell to a 26-6 defeat to Australia a fortnight ago.
However, Bennett welcomed back players from both Warrington and Wigan who were rested in England’s 6-40 victory over France last weekend. Luke Gale made his competitive international debut alongside Widdop in the halves while Jonny Lomax was picked at full-back over Stefan Ratchford. Wigan duo Liam Farrell and George Williams missed out.
It was also Sam Burgess’ first Rugby League international since New Zealand knocked England out of the 2013 Rugby League World Cup with Johnson’s last minute try in the semi-finals.
Predicting a tight game England seized the chance to take the lead in the opening minutes when Widdop slotted over a penalty after Kevin Proctor was penalised for holding down. Widdop doubled the lead eight minutes later with another penalty goal.
England continued to control the game and created some chances as McGillvary came close before James Graham had a close-range effort disallowed for a double movement, the correct decision by video referee Bernard Sutton.
The Kiwis got on the scoreboard with ten minutes of the first half remaining as Jordan Kahu converted a penalty after Elliot Whitehead knocked the ball from Isaac Lukes hands. Widdop would miscue the resulting kick-off and punt the ball dead allowing New Zealand to apply pressure to the England line and they took advantage.
Thomas Leuluai, Johnson and Kahu sent the ball through hands with clinical precision and it finally found Rapana who planted the ball down in the corner, Proctors decoy run creating the space. Kahu missed the conversion, however.
In search of a quick response in the early stages of the second half Widdop attempted to throw the ball wide but Johnson read the pass and raced 75-yards, the perfect start to the second forty for New Zealand. Kahu converted.
If Widdop’s passing was slightly off Whitehead’s certainly wasn’t as he helped England get back into the game. The Canberra back-rower’s long pass wide found McGillvary who cut inside and powered over the line in front of his hometown. Widdop converted.
The game began to open up as defences became tired England failed to wrap up the ball and Rapana burst through from the halfway line before rounding Lomax almost effortlessly to score. Kahu hit the post with the conversion.
Midway through the half England pulled themselves level. Gale found Widdop before the St George half-back flicked an outrageous pass over his head and straight into the arms of Hall who, in similar fashion to McGillvary before him, forced his way over. Widdop then converted from the touchline making it 16-16.
With fifteen minutes still left Johnson surprised everyone by kicking a drop-goal from ten metres out to edge the Kiwis back in front and in the end it would prove crucial. Widdop did attempt a drop-goal from 35-yards late on but skewed his effort wide before Sam Burgess dropped the ball in England’s last attacking set.
England: Lomax, McGillvary, Watkins, Sarginson, Hall; Widdop, Gale; Hill, Hodgson, Graham, Bateman, Whitehead, S. Burgess.
Interchanges: T. Burgess, G. Burgess, Cooper, Clark.
New Zealand: Kahu, Nightingale, Kata, Kenny-Dowall, Rapana; Leuluai, Johnson; Bromwich, Luke, Waerea-Hargreaves, Proctor, Harris, Taumalolo.
Interchanges: Brown, Taupau, Ma’u, Blair.
Referee: R. Hicks Touch Judges: J. Child & A. Elliot Video Referee: B. Sutton