Conrad Smith's 78th-minute try gave New Zealand a fortunate 20-15 win against an understrength England in Auckland. SIMON BORCHARDT reports.
Only seven players who started England's last Six Nations match were in their XV on Saturday, due to the unavailability of players from Saracens and Northampton, who had contested the Premiership final. Yet they will be disappointed not to have beaten an awful All Blacks team playing its first Test of 2014.
The big England forwards got over the advantage line and their backs showed plenty of enterprise, with Freddie Burns (starting only because Saracens' Owen Farrell could not be selected) controlling the game well at flyhalf. The All Blacks battled with Burns' high balls, missed 11 first-half tackles, conceded seven turnovers and were as passionless as their haka before the game.
Coach Steve Hansen must have read them the riot act at the break, but while they lifted their intensity and kicked well for territory, they missed another 13 tackles and made several more handling errors. With two minutes to go it was 15-15, and only Conrad Smith's try, and Aaron Cruden's five penalty goals, saved the All Blacks acute embarrassment.
England made a positive start to the match when a strong break by captain Chris Robshaw was followed by a Burns penalty goal. Ma'a Nonu, who had held back the supporting England player inside the 22, was lucky not to be yellow carded for the professional foul.
Cruden soon levelled the scores, but the All Blacks would have been disappointed not to have scored a try following waves of attack. A knock on from skipper Richie McCaw ended that assault.
England then came close to scoring themselves, only for Mike Brown to knock on a metre out, before Israel Dagg was denied a try at the other end when Manu Tuilagi just got to the ball in the in-goal area first, following a kick ahead.
Two excellent Burns penalty goals, the second from 53m, gave the visitors a 9-3 lead, but Cruden slotted another two himself to level the scores. England attacked again just before the break, with Tuilagi and Brown combining well to get them into a try-scoring position, but the All Blacks defence kept them out and Burns' drop goal went wide.
New Zealand were not much better after the break, with Israel Dagg's knock on seeing him substituted a few minutes later by Beauden Barrett. Hansen must have been tempted to bring Barrett on for Cruden, who looked off the pace.
Aaron Smith's kick down the left touchline should have resulted in a try to Jerome Kaino, but he knocked on under pressure with an open line.
England, though, were dominating possession and came close to scoring themselves when Jonny May kicked ahead and regained possession a metre out. But the All Blacks didn't release him and conceded a penalty that Burns sent through the posts. There should have also been a yellow card for the professional foul.
Two penalties from Cruden then put the All Blacks 15-12 ahead, with Marland Yarde penalised on the second occasion for not releasing. The winger was sent to the sin bin by referee Nigel Owens, who had just turned a blind eye to a similar All Blacks infringement.
Fourteen-man England drew level when replacement Danny Cipriani kicked a penalty with six minutes to go, only to concede another penalty within Cruden's range. The flyhalf, though, took a quick tap and Wyatt Crockett was stopped just short of the line. They attacked again from the 5m scrum, going wide from the ruck to Conrad Smith, who dived over in the right-hand corner.
While the All Blacks have taken a 1-0 lead in this three-match series, they will have a real fight on their hands against a full-strength England team over the next fortnight.
All Blacks – Try: Conrad Smith. Penalties: Aaron Cruden (5).
England – Penalties: Freddie Burns (4), Danny Cipriani.
All Blacks – 15 Israel Dagg, 14 Ben Smith, 13 Conrad Smith, 12 Ma'a Nonu, 11 Cory Jane, 10 Aaron Cruden, 9 Aaron Smith, 8 Jerome Kaino, 7 Richie McCaw (c), 6 Liam Messam, 5 Sam Whitelock, 4 Brodie Retallick, 3 Owen Franks, 2 Dane Coles, 1 Tony Woodcock.
Subs: 16 Keven Mealamu, 17 Wyatt Crockett, 18 Charlie Faumuina, 19 Patrick Tuipulotu, 20 Victor Vito, 21 TJ Perenara, 22 Beauden Barrett, 23 Malakai Fekitoa.
England – 15 Mike Brown, 14 Marland Yarde, 13 Manu Tuilagi, 12 Kyle Eastmond, 11 Jonny May, 10 Freddie Burns, 9 Ben Youngs, 8 Ben Morgan, 7 Chris Robshaw (c), 6 James Haskell, 5 Geoff Parling, 4 Joe Launchbury, 3 David Wilson, 2 Rob Webber, 1 Joe Marler
Subs: 16 Joe Gray, 17 Matt Mullan, 18 Henry Thomas, 19 Dave Attwood, 20 Tom Johnson, 21 Lee Dickson, 22 Danny Cipriani, 23 Chris Pennell.
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England captain Chris Robshaw had an excellent match with ball in hand, and set the tone when his early break resulted in a penalty goal for Freddie Burns.
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