England went three from three against Tonga this autumn as they wrapped up the test series with a 26-4 win at AMT Headingley this afternoon.
Here are our five takeaways from the Leeds press box…
England secure series whitewash
Having won both of the opening two tests – 22-18 in St Helens & 10-4 last weekend in Huddersfield -, boss Shaun Wane said he and his England squad were ‘obsessed’ with going 3-0 earlier this week. They did just that, sealing the whitewash they desired in some style, on top right from the off in Leeds.
Two first half tries had them in the driving seat come the break against an ill-disciplined Tonga team who have been poor throughout all three games. Wane’s men barely needed to get out of first gear in the second 40, though added 12 points to their tally and restricted the Tongans to a single score for the second week running.
The last England try of the series from Leeds Rhinos starlet Harry Newman in familiar territory was an absolute thing of beauty, off-the-cuff rugby league at its finest. Youngsters like him and Hull KR’s Mikey Lewis have helped to lead the way this autumn, and that’s what it’s all about.
England will welcome Samoa this time next year for another of these test series, and will no doubt just want to pick up from where they’ve left off as the build-up to the next World Cup in 2026 continues. Tonga meanwhile will head back to the Southern Hemisphere for 2024, replacing Samoa in the Pacific Championships.
Harry Smith crowned Player of the Series
After missing out on the Harry Sunderland Trophy by a single vote to Wigan Warriors team-mate Jake Wardle last month as they triumphed in the Super League Grand Final, half-back Harry Smith deservedly scooped the Player of the Series award, and by quite some distance in the voting too.
The playmaker now appears to have banished any talk of him having issues with the boot, perfect this afternoon with five from five.
It’s far from just that he’s impressed with thought, not putting a foot wrong – or at least not a notable one – over the last three weeks. There have been some memorable moments too, making a try-saving tackle in the first clash against the Pacific travellers and today executing an inch-perfect cross-field kick for the already-mentioned Newman try.
When you talk about the future of the country in rugby league, he is right up there.
Shaun Wane’s tinkering pays off with Robbie Mulhern and Ben Currie moved around
Injuries forced Wane to rotate his squad heavily ahead of this third test, with Morgan Smithies and Josh Thewlis brought in to bolster numbers.
Neither of those made the cut for the 17 at Headingley, but Leigh Leopards star Robbie Mulhern and Warrington Wolves ace Ben Currie did, though in different positions than we’re used to seeing them in.
Prop Mulhern featured at loose, and quietly went about his business. Barring a first-half error, which Tonga didn’t capitalise on, no arguments can be made against his inclusion. A useful tool to have in the box for England moving forward, rather than him starring for Ireland.
Back-rower Currie meanwhile made the move to centre, and impressed in doing so. He kept the pace with Smith who broke away, and took the ball cleanly to go in under the sticks for the first try of the afternoon as well as setting up another four-pointer for the man below…
Elliott Whitehead signs off in style
Canberra Raiders veteran Elliott Whitehead confirmed yesterday he would be retiring from international duty after this afternoon’s clash, given a rapturous applause in his home county ahead of the game as he was brought out ahead of the rest of his colleagues.
He signed off in style with a second half try which was handed to him on a plate by Currie following some nice link-up with Catalans Dragons speedster Tom Johnstone.
Whitehead will think himself unlucky not to have had a second try, with referee Chris Kendall ruling that he hadn’t grounded a grubber kick through cleanly, and the video referee agreeing with that.
Nonetheless, the forward bows out of the international game a legend, with 27 England caps to his name as well as having starred for Great Britain in 2019. Cruelly, he had been awarded the Man of the Match today, before the PA announced confirmed they’d made a mistake and it was in fact John Bateman’s accolade. Only in rugby league.
Bumper Headingley Crowd
Crowds have been a topic of discussion throughout the series, as always. Wane himself admitted that last weekend’s turnout in Huddersfield amid some woeful weather was disappointing earlier this week.
The biggest attendance of the three-part series came today though, with 15,477 packing out Headingley for the double-header and making themselves heard throughout.
That tally takes the total in-person viewership of the three-parter to almost 40,000, with the vast majority of those enjoying what they’ve seen.
England’s wheelchair team take on France tomorrow in Leeds, and more than 2,000 tickets have already been sold.