All Blacks lucky against inspired England
Unconvincing and probably undeserved, but the All Blacks somehow eked out a 20-15 victory over England at Eden Park tonight thanks to a 78th-minute try from Conrad Smith.
With the game locked at 15-15 inside the final four minutes, No 10 Aaron Cruden remarkably turned down a potentially match-winning shot at goal and took a tap penalty.
Somehow his adventure was met with reward - eventually. Replacement prop Wyatt Crockett was held up just short from his drive at the line, but from the resultant scrum the All Balcks were able to finally put Smith across out wide against the outmanned English defence.
It was a fortunate victory indeed by a very rusty All Blacks side who never found anything approaching their A game. A 15th straight test victory and a record 31st on the bounce at home was scarcely deserved, but again showed how good this New Zealand side is at the death of a tight test.
The depleted England side were good. Very good. But they were aided and abetted by an off-key performance from the All Blacks, completely lacking in the rhythm and the pace that you associate with this quality rugby side.
The world champions were strangely shakey under the high ball, awful with their handling and too often kicked away what little quality ball they were able to muster.
The lack of team cohesion was rust, for sure. But not the handling and continuity errors. That was just poor concentration and execution. Israel Dagg, at fullback, made more errors in 54 minutes than he has for the entirety of the Super Rugby season with the Crusaders.
The first 40 minutes ended at 9-9 on the scoreboard, three penalties apiece, though with England very much on the right side of the balance of the play ledger.
It was an unusual opening half of the new season from the All Blacks. Rusty, yes. But restrained, too. There was a distinct lack of ambition about their play, and a preponderance of kicking at the expense of keeping ball in hand, and building the phases.
It was as though the world champions were reluctant to be caught in possession by the visiting defensive line, and much of their kicking was either aimless or lacking aim.
Either way, it was England who played most of the positive rugby through the first half and also came much the closest to breaking the try deadlock. They probably should have scored around the 10-minute mark, but Mike Brown uncharacteristically knocked on with numbers in their favour close to the line.
It was a half very much played at England's place - slow and methodical. And much of that was of the All Blacks' doing as they neglected to play the possession football that is their hallmark at their best.
A 40 minutes that lurched from set piece to set piece very much suited the visitors, and some pretty ordinary play under the high ball and 11 missed tackles also failed to ignite the All Black cause. All told it was an unimpressive start to the new campaign from a side that never really made the step up in level from Super Rugby.
The All Blacks failed to step up their game through the third quarter and were lucky to head into the final quarter of an hour on level terms, at 12-12, with a fourth penalty apiece.
Brodie Retallick's big 70th minute break up the middle finally found England's defence wanting, and when wing Marland Yarde flopped all over the ball, not only was he yellow-carded but Cruden was able to edge the All Blacks in front 15-12.
The lead lasted just three minutes before Danny Cipriani levelled when his own break forced the All Black error at the tackle.
But it was the veteran centre Smith who decided things with one of the more crucial tries of his long career.
Aaron Smith was a rare All Black to find some form in this forgettable encounter, the halfback's sharpness and speed of execution at a level most of his team-mates failed to match
Skipper Chris Robshaw had an outstanding game for the English, while powerhouse No 8 Ben Morgan also impressed with his ability to get over the advantage line, and sometimes well beyond.
Brown, at fullback, showed the class that saw him named the best player in the Six Nations and big Manu Tuilagi was again a metre-eater with all in hand. There was also plenty to like from a livewire display from inside centre Kyle Eastmond in just his third test.
New Zealand 20 (Conrad Smith try; Aaron Cruden 5 pens), England 15 (Freddie Burns 4 pens, Danny Cipriani pen). HT: 9-9.