New Zealand 20 England 15 match report: England so close to sacking Kiwi stronghold

Under-strength tourists give the All Blacks a massive fright before falling to last-gasp try

It depends how you look at it: England have either blown their best chance of beating the All Blacks on New Zealand soil, or they will have the opportunity of a lifetime – maybe several lifetimes – when they field a far stronger combination in Dunedin next weekend.

A Red Rose side boasting only five first-choice players gave the reigning world champions a rare old hurry-up here yesterday, and for long periods it seemed that the greatest of all rugby strongholds would finally be sacked after 20 years of impregnability. Then, less than three minutes from time, the drawbridge was slammed shut in the tourists’ faces.

Conrad Smith, that most cunning of outside-centres, was the man who slammed it, diving over in the right corner after a clever pass under pressure from his namesake Ben off a five-metre scrum. Yet if the All Black celebrations were wildly joyous, their overwhelming emotion was one of relief. It had taken them 70 minutes to hit the front and, having been reeled back in by Danny Cipriani, who nailed a tough penalty to square it at 15 apiece within a minute or so of replacing the excellent Freddie Burns, they needed all their wit and a splash of good fortune to close the deal at the death.

If England fail to take something from this series they will forever rue two major mess-ups deep in the last quarter, when the contest was as tight as a tourniquet. In the 70th minute, with the scores locked at 12-12, the scrum-half, Ben Youngs, allowed the ball to slip away at the base of a ruck, an error that freed the rangy All Black lock Brodie Retallick on a 40-metre gallop into the danger zone.

 

Marland Yarde hunted him down, but the wing’s attempt to smuggle possession on the floor put him on the wrong side of the referee, Nigel Owens, who promptly flourished a yellow card. By the time Yarde reached the sin-bin, Aaron Cruden had kicked the easy penalty.

Then, after the substitute New Zealand hooker Keven Mealamu had dived headlong into a ruck and handed Cipriani a high-pressure shot at the sticks – the poor devil had barely had a chance to get used to the light, let alone find his range – there was a second, infinitely more expensive, faux pas. Henry Thomas, on at tighthead prop for David Wilson, threw an ill-judged pass to his front-row colleague Joe Marler in open field, leaving the Harlequin hopelessly isolated. Predictably enough, Marler was penalised for not releasing on the floor.

At which point there was unpredictability of the most exciting kind. Cruden, such an inventive soul, rejected the straightforward three-pointer in favour of a quick tap – a decision that seemed profoundly flawed until Victor Vito, the powerful back-rower from Wellington, tore through the English barricades at express pace. Thomas paid his debt to Red Rose society by bringing him to earth with a fingertip tackle, but the All Blacks were in prime position now and they duly made it count by manufacturing the winning try for Smith.

It was savagely hard on the tourists, who had risen miles above the selectorial morass caused by the absence of 14 players from Northampton and Saracens, the two strongest clubs in England, and delivered a performance most rugby folk thought was beyond a side so weakened by injury and unavailability. They made much of the early running, partly through the intelligent support play of the captain, Chris Robshaw, and the rumbustious No 8, Ben Morgan, and partly through the control exerted by the recalled Burns, and had they been more disciplined at the restarts they might easily have led at the interval.

Instead, they turned around at 9-9 – an unnerving position, given the All Blacks’ penchant for tearing up opponents in the 20 minutes after the break. Yet with the tight forwards scrummaging heavily and maximising their line-out expertise with some dynamic driving mauls, the tourists were strong enough to cope with the increased tempo the New Zealanders brought to their work on the resumption.

Brodie Rettallick attempts to break the tackle of Marland Yarde Brodie Rettallick attempts to break the tackle of Marland Yarde In fact, they matched them blow for blow: the brilliant blind-side snipe from the home scrum-half Aaron Smith that should have resulted in a try for Jerome Kaino was balanced by a lovely broken-field run from Kyle Eastmond, the out-of-favour Bath centre who more than justified his place in the England midfield, and a dangerous chip-and-chase effort from the lively Gloucester wing Jonny May.

There was always a serious chance of the All Blacks hurting their opponents off the bench, and the introduction of Vito at the last knockings certainly impacted on the outcome. Yet England made light of the fact that so many senior players, from the outside-half Owen Farrell to the back-five forwards Courtney Lawes and Tom Wood, were manacled to their seats in the stand. All things considered, it was a remarkable effort for so depleted a side to stay in the game for so long.

But heartbreakingly close is never close enough. As the indefatigable Robshaw said afterwards, the sides were equally matched everywhere except in the final numbers. And those are the only things that really matter.

New Zealand: I Dagg (Hawke’s Bay;); B Smith (Otago), C Smith, M Nono, C Jane (all Wellington); A Cruden (Manawatu), A Smith (Manawatu); A Woodcock (N Harbour), D Coles (Wellington), O Franks (Canterbury), B Retallick (Bay of Plenty), S Whitelock (Canterbury), L Messam (Waikato), R McCaw (Canterbury, capt), J Kaino (Auckland).

Replacements: B Barrett (Taranaki) for Dagg, 54; C Faumuina (Auckland) for Franks, 54; K Mealamu (Auckland) for Coles, 60; W Crockett (Canterbury) for Woodcock, 60; M Fekitoa (Auckland) for Nonu, 60; T J Perenara (Wellington) for A Smith, 70; V Vito (Wellington) for Messam, 71

England: M Brown (Harlequins); M Yarde (Harlequins), M Tuilagi (Leicester), K Eastmond (Bath), J May (Gloucester); F Burns (Leicester), B Youngs (Leicester); J Marler (Harlequins), R Webber (Bath), D Wilson (Bath), J Launchbury (Wasps), G Parling (Leicester), J Haskell (Wasps), C Robshaw (Harlequins, capt), B Morgan (Gloucester).

Replacements: J Gray (Harlequins) for Webber, 70; H Thomas (Bath) for Wilson, 70; D Attwood (Bath) for Launchbury, 70; T Johnson (Exeter) for Haskell, 70; D Cipriani (Sale) for Burns, 71; C Pennell (Worcester) for May, 79; L Dickson (Northampton) for Youngs, 79.

Referee: Nigel Owens (Wales).

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