GIANTS hero Eorl Crabtree once again enhanced his growing reputation with another awesome international display to help England beat New Zealand 20-12 at the Galpharm Stadium.
After impressing from the bench against Australia at Wigan a week ago, the 27-year-old prop repeated the act with another two-spell stint that lifted his teammates and crowd alike.
But on this occasion his efforts were to gain a far higher reward.
Against the Kangaroos, his efforts couldn’t prevent his country from suffering a 26-16 defeat, but on Saturday Crabtree was on hand to help England gain revenge for their World Cup defeat to the Kiwis a year ago and set up a showdown with Australia in the final of the Gillette Four Nations at Leeds on Saturday.
It was the dream scenario for Crabtree, who was desperate to make a positive impact at his ‘home’ ground, in front of a crowd of 19,390.
And he believes he couldn’t have done much better.
"Saturday night was fantastic for me," said Crabtree, whose spells came between minutes 20 and 48 and then from the 65th to the 76th minute.
"I’ve helped us beat New Zealand and reach the Four Nations final at the Galpharm Stadium, and it doesn’t get much better than that.
"I was obviously desperate to play well in my hometown, and I think playing in such familiar surroundings helped me a lot.
"We all knew this was a massive ‘must-win’ game for us, but I felt really comfortable before the game, because I was in my own changing room and I even had my usual corner.
"And, to be honest, I also felt very comfortable when I came onto the field.
"Our starting forwards ripped in to the New Zealand pack really hard and were soon on top of them, so when I came on I was taking on a side that was already a bit tired.
"That helped my game, and I think I helped keep us on top. Although it was a really physical game, I thought I made a positive impact.
"I definitely enjoyed the experience, and the fact we won was obviously the best part of it all."
But in a game where the forwards ensured it became a war of attrition, the final outcome of the contest hung in the balance throughout.
England led from the 10th minute and seized control with Peter Fox’s two quickfire tries, but they were never able to relax against a fired-up Kiwis side determined to build on their World Cup triumph.
It was a victory for the tactics of England coach Tony Smith, whose late switch of Kevin Sinfield to hooker enabled him to start with the imposing Sam Burgess at loose forward and sparked a man-of-the-match display from the Leeds Rhinos captain.
Smith’s selection of four front-row forwards in his starting pack was a clear indication of England’s tactics, and they reaped a fruitful harvest down the middle of the field.
It was a demonstration not only of the strength of the current England side but the dearth of talent in their outside backs.
That may be exposed by Australia on Saturday.
But it was good enough to see off a New Zealand side who struggled to reach the heights of their performance against the Kangaroos.
After beginning sluggishly against both France and Australia, it was imperative England got off to a good start – and that they did was largely down to Burgess.
He visibly lifted his teammates with some crunching tackles and created the game’s first try, spinning out of Frank-Paul Nuuausala’s attempted tackle to send Kyle Eastmond over for a 10th-minute score on his full debut.
Sinfield’s conversion made it 6-0, but the Kiwis struck back through left winger Bryson Goodwin after Fox shot out of the defensive line. It was a basic error that could have damaged the confidence of a less able player.
However, the Hull KR man was successfully able to make up for the blunder during the remainder of the match.
Goodwin missed the conversion but levelled the scores with a 30th-minute penalty, and it was still all square until Fox’s decisive intervention.
His first try came courtesy of lively stand-off Sam Tomkins, whose lofted kick to the corner bounced over the head of Goodwin and into the grateful arms of Fox.
Just 80 seconds remained of the first half when Fox struck again, taking Chris Bridge’s pass after England caught the New Zealand defensive line out of alignment from a scrum.
Sinfield added both conversions to give his side a 12-point cushion, but it was halved within two minutes of the restart when the Kiwis scored the best try of the match.
Substitute hooker Issac Luke shot away from dummy half and, after Nathan Fien moved the ball wide, back rower Ben Matulino took a return pass from centre Junior Sau to touch down.
As stalemate ensued and with a draw no good to England, Sinfield had the sense to attempt a drop goal, which was charged down by Sia Soliola.
But he had the opportunity to put two scores between the sides moments later when the Kiwis were punished for interference at the play-the-ball in front of their own posts and the Leeds captain made no mistake with the easy penalty to seal a superb success.