Aaron Cruden's audacious late decision to tap a kickable penalty and go for the try got the All Blacks out of the tightest of spots late in a gripping but messy test at Auckland's Eden Park last night.
It was a decision that was spontaneous, unauthorised and highly risky option when handed a 76th-minute penalty from a kickable position. But in the end it paid dividends as Conrad Smith's late try separated an all-kick 15-15 deadlock.
Cruden and late sub Beauden Barrett engineered the tap-and-go, replacement loosie Victor Vito provided the key hit-up and initially it came to nought when Wyatt Crockett's charge for the line came up short.
But from the resultant scrum the All Blacks continued their reputation as rugby's great escape artists, working through some phases and then getting the ball to the short side where Smith was lurking wide to punish an English defence stretched wafer-thin by the late sinbinning to wing Marland Yarde.
Cruden's risky roll of the dice was probably against common wisdom, but later earned the praise of the All Blacks' senior figures.
Asked what he thought when Cruden tapped, coach Steve Hansen said: "Good on you son, especially when Beaudy gave the ball to Victor, I thought he was going to steam-train through, but he got ankle-tapped.
"It was one of those games where someone had to take it by the scruff of the neck. Logic would say Cruden should have kicked the goal but I think England would have enjoyed that. He played an option that was there to play. We were very calm in the box and supportive of what he did."
Skipper Richie McCaw said he did not green-light the tap, but he supported his playmaker's decision. "I didn't say anything," he said. "You've got to back the guys to have a crack. If they're always looking to me they'll never take an opportunity. I was ready to point at the posts but he thought better of it, and it paid off."
"It was a brave one," added England coach Stuart Lancaster of Cruden's big call. And he had to admit it was a risky venture that eventually paid the most handsome of dividends for the All Blacks.
For all the thrilling nature of the victory it was a performance that will have the All Blacks working double-time in Dunedin this week to address their shortcomings. They were ropey under the high ball, missed too many tackles and were in back-pedal mode at scrum time.
It was a fortunate victory indeed by a very rusty, and off-key, 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.
Chris Robshaw and Ben Morgan were the best of a combative pack, while Manu Tuilagi, Kyle Eastmond and Mike Brown were the pick of a busy backline. Lancaster will now have some big decisions to make as he weighs rewarding form and performance with the 16 fresh bodies he will have at his disposal.
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 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. Other reliable types also made uncharacteristic errors.
Brodie Retallick's big 70th-minute break up the middle was also massive in the final accounting. When 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 wouldn't last, but the numerical advantage would be the difference on a night when England deserved so much more.
New Zealand 20 (Conrad Smith try; Aaron Cruden 5 pens), England 15 (Freddie Burns 4 pens, Danny Cipriani pen). HT: 9-9.
- Sunday Star Times
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