Improved All Blacks hold off England
That's more like it. The All Blacks challenged themselves all week to be better and, led by a masterclass display from fullback Ben Smith, delivered beautifully under the roof of one of their favourite stadiums last night.
In an absorbing and entertaining contest, the world champions shook off a flat first half, and a 10-6 deficit at the break, to produce an exhilarating third quarter and seal this test series against Stuart Lancaster's gallant England tourists with a third matchup to come in Hamilton next Saturday.
But they only just held on in the face of a furious English finish, with the tourists closing a 28-13 deficit midway through the second spell all the way up to 28-27 with late tries to Mike Brown and Chris Ashton. The miniscule margin was probably fitting at the end of a magnificent contest in which both teams contributed plenty.
After the inadequacies of Auckland a week earlier, this was a vastly improved effort from the All Blacks who took a while to get their game going, but lifted to a level after the break that their staunch rivals from the north found just too difficult to live with.
Ben Smith - the star of a special night for the home city favourite - Julian Savea and Ma'a Nonu struck for tries in an exhilarating 20-minute period that sealed the deal as the All Blacks extended their win streak to 16 and their run of home victories to 32.
But credit, too, to England who played hard till the end, and came roaring back to signal that, yes, they're breathing right down the necks of the world's No 1 side. Indeed, on the strength of the last four meetings, this has the makings of a rivalry for the ages.
Under the roof of a packed Forsyth Barr Stadium, England made a belter of a start, springboarding off three early penalties to lead 10-0 inside seven minutes. After an early Own Farrell penalty, the first try went to wing Marlon Yarde when the tourists executed fabulously off an attacking lineout, though the sight of skipper Richie McCaw falling off the tackle as Yarde ran a nice channel off his halfback was alarming to say the least.
Remarkably the tourists weren't able to add to their total over the following half-hour till the break. Equally remarkably, the All Blacks could find no way through the resolute English defence, and had to rely on two Aaron Cruden penalties to edge within four points (10-6) at the turn-around.
There had been some promising moments for the New Zealanders, with Ma'a Nonu and Ben Smith especially prominent, but again the errors came a little too often for the All Blacks. From one such clanger, by Cory Jane late in the first half, Ben Smith was called on to produce a wonderful piece of defensive brilliance that may have been the game's defining moment.
As Manu Tuilagi scooped up a loose ball and hared off down the right wing, he looked for all money in for a try, until Smith not only ran him down on the angle, but got to his feet to turn over the ball.
Smith crossed for the All Blacks' opening try just a couple of minutes into the second spell, finishing a sweeping move sparked by Cruden and with a nice contribution from Savea.
Six minutes later Savea was across to finish a surging move sparked by Aaron Smith's brilliant break, and then Nonu followed a yellow card to Owen Farrell with a great run to the line off Conrad Smith's nicely weighted pass. That sealed the deal, but did not sink the English.
Lancaster's men refused to bow their heads, and finished brilliantly with those two late tries (Brown's was suspect as he looked held up, but Ashton's involved some great skill from Yarde).
Ben Smith was magnificent for the All Blacks, revelling in this first opportunity to start a test in the No 15 jersey as he stamped his class all over this contest.
Nonu, too, had a big match, as did Savea whose return to the left wing provided not only some much-needed cut and thrust, but a much better balance to the back three. Conrad Smith, of course, was his immaculate self, and up front Brodie Retallick was the standout in an improved forward effort, while Jerome Kaino celebrated his 50th test with another impressive display.
"It' what test rugby should be, playing one of the top teams in the world and you've got to be right on your game to win." said McCaw of an exhilarating contest. "Test rugby is a completely different level and perhaps last week it took us a wee while to adjust but it was a lot better tonight."
On the strength of this next Saturday in Hamilton can't come quickly enough.
New Zealand 28 (Ben Smith, Julian Savea, Ma'a Nonu tries; Aaron Cruden con, 2 pens; Beauden Barrett con, pen) England 27 (Marland Yarde, Mike Brown, Chris Ashton tries; Owen Farrell 3 cons, 2 pens). HT: 6-10
MVP: Ben Smith. The hometown hero has been waiting for this chance and unleashed a masterclass in his first start at fullback. From his brilliant run-down of Manu Tuilagi to his game-changing try early in the second spell his imprint was all over this absorbing match.
Big moment: It had to be something from Ben Smith, and it didn't come any better than his piece of defensive brilliance to deny Tuilagi who looked a certainty to score a runaway try just before halftime. Not only did he haul in the runaway caboose, but got to his feet and won the ball too. Magic!
Upshot: Folks, we have ourselves a special rivalry. England pushed the All Blacks to the brink for the second straight week, and added plenty to another absorbing contest. Close your eyes and imagine these two sides contesting the World Cup final in 15 months' time, and you might not be too far off the mark.