All Blacks looked decidedly rusty in their first Test of the year
A late Conrad Smith try saw the All Blacks claim an unconvincing 20-15 victory over a determined England side at Eden Park on Saturday.
It took the All Blacks 76 minutes to score a try. That is almost unthinkable. It almost suggests that we are entering an era of no-try rugby. After all, if the All Blacks can't, who on earth can?
But a lot of credit must go to the determined English side, not the weakened side of yore but a side with its heads up and eager to beat the All Blacks. They were more intense and more direct and played some famous All Blacks out of the game as they could not match the English in ardour - players like Israel Dagg, Cory Jane, Aaron Cruden, Liam Messam, Sam Whitelock and the front row. They have all certainly had better days in an All Black jersey.
Surprisingly England were not a kicking side but ran with the ball right from the start when Cruden kicked the ball to them after the kick-off. And it was the English centres who looked the most penetrating players on the field.
The stage was set for a great New Zealand performance - packed Eden Park where they had not lost since France beat them in 1994, a perfect evening, a firm field, 48 000 spectators to cheer them on. There were the anthems, the kamate haka and the countdown. Freddie Burns kicked off for England and England came on the counterattack with a charge by Chris Robshaw. Ma'a Nonu pulled James Haskell's jersey as he ran in support and Burns kicked it over. 3-0 after two minutes.
Nonu was not yellow carded.
At this stage New Zealand were suffering a wobbly start with errors by Cruden and Nonu but from a scrum they attacked with a sharp dart by Ben Smith that ended with Cory Jane stopped four metres from the England line. Ben Youngs was offside and Cruden levelled the scores.
The scoring for the half was all penalties - three each for a 9-all end.
Robshaw had another burst and Burns was over but Youngs knocked on. New Zealand went wide from a scrum and Jane kicked ahead. Dagg and Kyle Eastmond raced for the ball in in-goal but the English centre just won.
New Zealand attacked again but England held out.
Burns kicked two penalty goals and Cruden two to make it 9-all after 38 minutes.
Then, just before the break, England were most threatening as Manu Tuilagi and Mike Brown attacked down the right. They came back wide left in the first bit of continuity in the match up to then, a strange situation in a match where both sides seemed keen to run. Held out England opted for a drop after the siren. It went astray and the half ended.
The All Blacks came out looking keener and sharper in the second half, kicking a great deal to keep England defending. This increased intensity took about 20 minutes to fade. Not all of it was bright and England dropped out three times from innocuous kicks into their in-goal.
The All Blacks came close to scoring, in fact should have scored. Aaron Smith kicked ahead and then kneed the bouncing ball towards the line. A metre or less from the line Jerome Kaino bent to pick it up to score in the left corner but knocked on.
From the scrum Ben Morgan broke strongly up the right. England went left where Eastmond broke and May had a run, but the defence held. It was the most exciting passage of play in the match.
New Zealand made three changes at this stage, which gave Malakai Fekitoa his first cap.
Two more penalties made it 12-all and then New Zealand took the lead.
Youngs did not pick the ball up from a tackle/ruck but big Brodie Retallick did. The lock galloped down the middle of the field till Marland Yarde hauled him down. A ruck occurred and Yarde was penalised for not releasing Retallick and was yellowcarded with 12 minutes to play. Cruden goaled the resulting penalty and New Zealand led 15-12, not that it lasted long.
England brought on several substitutes, including debutant Joe Gray and forgiven naughty boy Danny Cipriani. Cipriani broke, Conrad Smith felled him and Keven Mealamu was penalised for side entry. Cipriani goaled. 15-12 with seven minutes to play.
New Zealand got down into England's half and had a penalty at a tackle in front of England's goalposts. New Zealand surprised England and the world when Cruden tapped the ball and went right. Beauden Barrett had a good run and then Victor Vito bashed at the line. The All Blacks bashed and Wyatt Crockett was just short. That gave New Zealand a five--metre scrum. Kaino bashed, Vito bashed and then Aaron Smith gave to Ben Smith whose only movement was swift pass top Conrad Smith who scored the winning try in the corner - a good occasion to be a Smith. Soon afterwards the siren went, England were penalised and TJ Perenara kicked out for victory.
Man of the Match: The New Zealand candidates are probably Aaron Smith and Brodie Retallick. The England candidates are probably Chris Robshaw, bustling Ben Morgan and our choice of Man of the Match Manu Tuilagi whose effort and skill were so effective, such a thorn in New Zealand flesh.
Moment of the Match: Aaron Cruden's startling tap kick that ended in the winning try.
Villain of the Match: Ma'a Nonu. There is something gross about deliberately tugging the jersey of a player who does not have the ball. And if James Haskell had retaliated he would have been the man in trouble.
For New Zealand:
Pens: Cruden 5
Pens: Burns 4, Cipriani
Yellow card: Marland Yarde (England, 68 mins - Cynical infringement)
New Zealand: 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 (captain), 6 Liam Messam, 5 Sam Whitelock, 4 Brodie Retallick, 3 Owen Franks, 2 Dane Coles, 1 Tony Woodcock.
Replacements: 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 (captain), 6 James Haskell, 5 Geoff Parling, 4 Joe Launchbury, 3 David Wilson, 1 Rob Webber, Joe Marler.
Replacements: 16 Joe Gray, 17 Matt Mullan, 18 Henry Thomas, 19 Dave Attwood, 20 Tom Johnson, 21 Lee Dickson, 22 Danny Cipriani, 23 Chris Pennell.
Referee: Nigel Owens (Wales)
Assistant referees: Jaco Peyper (South Africa), Jérôme Garcès (France)
TMO: George Ayoub (Australia)