- Conrad Smith’s 77th minute try defeats England at Eden Park
- Dogged England denied at the last in intense Test match
New Zealand 20 England 15
New Zealand centre Conrad Smith dived over for a last-gasp try to deny committed England a famous draw in the first Test at Eden Park.
Stuart Lancaster’s side, missing 15 players from the Aviva Premiership finalists, was written off by all outside the dressing room but the All Blacks did not lead until the 68th minute after a display of ambition and courage was capped by the 100 per cent kicking of Freddie Burns from the tee.
Soon after Burns’ replacement Danny Cipriani had levelled the score at 15-15 with eight minutes to play, Aaron Cruden shocked the whole stadium by passing up a presentable penalty in-front of the posts.
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The Chiefs fly half, who had kicked five from five penalties himself, had his bold decision eventually vindicated when Smith collected Ben Smith’s deft pass to score in the corner and send the home crowd delirious.
But England, with Northampton Saints and Saracens players available next week in Dunedin, emerge with great credit after seriously troubling a side which has now won 15 straight games.
New Zealand had not lost at Eden Park for since 1994 but England’s pack, led by the work rate, physicality and accuracy of Ben Morgan and Joe Marler, showed no signs of being overawed.
The set-piece, with lineout and scrum operating at 100 per cent, were a major plus throughout, with only a couple of errors towards the end – England turned the ball over 20 times to New Zealand's 12 – handing the initiative to the All Blacks.
England, showing just six players from the RBS 6 Nations victory in Italy in the starting line-up, began with the verve and intensity synonymous with their illustrious hosts. Relentless captain Chris Robshaw was involved in all of the best moments in the opening quarter, outshining 124-Test opposite number Richie McCaw in both defence and attack
From smooth line-breaks to clutching defensive lineouts on the five-metre line, he was everywhere. A buccaneering break set the tone in the first minute, allowing Burns to kick England into the lead with a sweetly struck penalty after Ma'a Nonu's tug back on James Haskell's supporting line. After All Blacks fly half Aaron Cruden tied the scores with a simple penalty of his own soon after, there were chances at both ends.
First Robshaw sauntered forward down the left and offloaded to three-Test centre Kyle Eastmond, who was hauled down five metres from the line. Mike Brown – with the first of two knock-ons in as many minutes – lost the ball forwards in contact to initiate a passage of play which demonsrtated New Zealand’s clinical quality on the ball.
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Off the top of a lineout on half way, Israel Dagg accelerated round the outside of England’s defence as they came up and when Cory Jane dabbed the ball forwards Manu Tuilagi just beat Crusaders full back Dagg to the loose ball.
Burns, starting only his third Test, was supreme with the boot, pumping a pressure-reliving kick to touch and keeping the scoreboard ticking over. Shuddering hits were flying in – returning Lion Geoff Parling absorbed a thumper in midfield – but England’s pack were gaining some control in the tight.
New Zealand infringed at wide breakdown on 20 minutes and when Robshaw pointed to the posts Burns again obliged, before handing England a six-point advantage when the hosts were penalised at a scrum two minutes later.
England were buoyant, and rightly so, but the hosts came back into the game through their own forwards. Under pressure late in the half Robshaw – his first mistake of a fine 40 minutes – and then Haskell gave away penalties, which Cruden gleefully sent through the posts to tie the scores at the break.
Steve Hansen clearly read the riot act at half time as the All Blacks emerged with renewed intensity. Dagg, gliding across the turf at will, fed Nonu down the left but eventually Joe Launchbury scooped up the loose ball. England were dealing with runners at pace from a variety of angles, and when Burns was forced to clear a series of 22-drop outs, wave after wave kept coming.
After chief tormentor in attack Dagg, who admittedly had a few shaky moments in defence, was replaced by Beauden Barrett, New Zealand came close. Aaron Smith dabbed a kick through and with the line at his mercy, returning No.8 Jerome Kaino could not gather the ball.
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That sparked England into life after 15 minutes on the back foot, Ben Morgan bulldozing clear with a powerful 30-metre charge from his own try line. Then Eastmond showed all his quality in midfield, with a little bit of his inexperience. The Bath man danced past two defenders in the blink of an eye but looked to pass when he could have backed himself and the chance was lost.
After a scoreless 20 minutes, a frantic and enthralling final quarter started with England regaining the lead. Jonny May came off his left wing to slot a kick through and when he re-gathered, the All Blacks illegally prevented him from recycling the ball near the try line. Burns, four from four from the tee, stepped back and confidently thrust the visitors three points ahead yet again.
But England’s were immediately pinned back and after Tuilagi was offside in the defensive line, Cruden made no mistake. New Zealand were yet to lead the game as the 70thminute approached, but soon had a golden opportunity to move ahead.
Towering lock Brodie Retallick broke clear down the middle and when Marland Yarde hauled him down, the wing was on the wrong side to kill the ball and predictably was given a yellow card by referee Nigel Owens.
Cruden kicked his 15th point of the night and the England fans groaned, only to be surprised by their team’s resolve yet again. Danny Cirpriani – on his first Test appearance for six years – was on for the excellent Burns and sent a penalty through the uprights with his second touch of the ball.
An unlikely draw for Lancaster’s unstinting troops was on the cards, only for Smith’s late intervention to break England hearts in the cruellest of fashions. Credit must go the gumption of Cruden, turning down a certain three points in the quest for seven.
Eden Park produced an enthralling Test match from the first minute to the last and, with both teams intent on improving in Dunedin next week, this series could turn into something special.
New Zealand: Dagg; B Smith, C Smith, Nonu, Jane, Cruden, A. Smith, Woodcock, Coles, O. Franks, Retallick, Whitelock, Messam, McCaw, Kaino.
Replacements: Mealamu, Crockett, Faumuina, Tuipulotu, Vito, Perenara, Barrett, Fekitoa.
England: Brown; Yarde, Tuilagi, Eastmond, May; Burns, Youngs, Marler, Webber, Wilson, Launchbury, Parling, Haskell, Robshaw, Morgan.
Replacements: Gray, Mullan, Thomas, Attwood, Johnson, Dickson, Cipriani, Pennell.
Referee: Nigel Owens (Wales)