A last gasp try by Conrad Smith sealed a desperate 20-15 win for the All Blacks over an enterprising England at Eden Park here Saturday.
It was the only try in a scintillating match in which the visitors, largely written off before the game, dictated terms for much of the play despite starting with 284 caps compared to the All Blacks’ 779.
There was little to suggest the All Blacks were the reigning world champions. In their first Test of the season they vowed not to use rustiness as an excuse. But there were few other explanations for a performance strewn with mistakes and handling errors.
England, hampered by having at least 12 senior players unavailable, rattled the All Blacks from the kick off.
They shaded the home side in the scrums, kicked to turn the All Blacks around — with the New Zealanders often uneasy under the high ball — and with the ball in hand they played an expansive game to show a touch of class on the outside.
As the All Blacks began to crumble, coach Steve Hansen gambled with 20 minutes to go by replacing the 88-Test rock of the backline Ma’a Nonu with debutant Malakai Fekitoa to “do the job for us”.
While Hansen said he believed the All Blacks needed a 30-40 percent improvement, captain Richie McCaw said they never felt they were going to lose.
“It didn’t feel like the game was slipping away from us. It was just a matter of putting a couple of things together to get to the right end of the field to get an opportunity and it took a while for that to happen,” he said.
England coach Stuart Lancaster faulted his side for not kicking themselves out of trouble when the All Blacks were attacking in the dying minutes.
“At 15-all it’s all about territory and how you manage the game and close out the game. We had opportunities in between our 22 and halfway line to clear our lines a bit and play and put the pressure on them,” he said.
England assistant coach Andy Farrell had called on his side to believe in themselves and for the first half they did.
They rocked the All Blacks from the kick off, forcing indecision and errors with a rushed defence while cashing in as the penalties flowed.
Chris Robshaw exposed holes around the All Blacks ruck in the opening minutes forcing them into a defensive penalty as they scrambled to hold their line and Freddie Burns slotted the three points.
Burns, who made his debut off the bench when England beat New Zealand at Twickenham two years ago, added two more penalties matched by three for the All Blacks by Aaron Cruden as they turned at half-time locked at 9-9.
Both sides tested the tryline in the first half. Only a desperate tackle by Mike Brown stopped Cory Jane scoring in the corner for the All Blacks while Freddie Burns crossed for England but was called back for a knock on.
An audacious pass through the legs by England’s James Haskell had Jonny May sprinting down the sideline but that was undone by a forward pass.
Errors continued to plague the All Blacks after the resumption with Jerome Kaino knocking on a metre from the line and Ben Smith came up just short when the All Blacks elected to run instead of taking a kickable penalty.
The second half was scoreless until the 65th minute when a fourth Burns penalty put England ahead 12-9 leading to a frantic closing period.
Cruden landed two further penalties to put the All Blacks ahead for the first time, replacement fly-half Danny Cipriani landed one to level the scores at 15-all before Smith scoring the match-winning try.