Conrad Smith saved the All Blacks blushes with a 78th minute try to hold off a gallant England 20-15 in the first Test at Eden Park in Auckland.
It was a brave effort from a second string England, and on reflection a draw would have been a fair result for what was on show throughout the 80 minutes, however the All Blacks underlined why they are the benchmark in world rugby by holding their nerve to send Smith over in the corner, in what was clearly a heartbreaking moment for England.
England were never expected to challenge the mighty All Blacks considering the resources that were missing through injury and late arrivals, however Chris Robshaw’s team came within touching distance of emulating Martin Johnson’s troops in 2003 when they edged the New Zealanders 15-13 at the Westpac Stadium in Wellington.
It must have been a disappointing outcome for Stuart Lancaster and his team, however when they have a chance to reflect, they will draw much encouragement from the performance and not the result, which has set the tone for what looks to be an exciting series, especially considering the returning Saracens and Northampton contingent.
Stuart Lancaster will have some serious selection headaches ahead of the second Test after the performances of the stand-in players and some of the regulars might not find themselves an automatic selection for next weeks second Test.
England matched the All Blacks in all facets throughout the 80 minutes, and there will be question marks against the consistency of the referee Nigel Owens, something Lancaster stayed away from when talking to the media after the game.
The All Blacks are notoriously slow starters to their international season and one will expect a far more dominant performance next week by Steve Hansen’s World Cup winners.
They lacked the pace and continuity that we have become accustomed to seeing with Robshaw and co. clearly surprised them at the breakdown and their ability to play counterattacking rugby.
For England Mike Brown was again superb, with Manu Tuilagi showing he will be a threat all series to the experienced Conrad Smith and Ma’a Nonu in midfield.
Ben Morgan had a storming game at eight and will be a little unlucky if he misses out next week to the returning Billy Vunipola, however the Saracens man has been outstanding for club and country over the last year and his powerful gains off the back of the scrum will be a huge asset to England next week.
New Leicester recruit Freddie Burns got the nod at flyhalf and put in a very composed performance contributing 12 points from the boot, while Danny Cipriani returned to England duty for the first time in six years with a cameo role that put England 15-12 up and within touching distance of would would have been an unthinkable upset.
The tide turned for England when Maland Yarde was sent off for not rolling away. This opened the door for a rusty New Zealand to do what they do best, finish off teams.
Aaron Cruden caught England napping when he took a quick tap, instead of shooting for what would have been a certain three points.
This lead to a swarming All Black assault on the England line and with two minutes left, New Zealand sensed a man advantage down the blindside and quick hands by Ben Smith created the space for veteran Smith to dive over in the corner and seal their fourteenth consecutive win.