In the end it was a “brave” decision that saw New Zealand beat England in the first match of a three-Test series, writes Alan Dymock in Auckland.
With the game finely poised at 15-all and only minutes remaining, Aaron Cruden shunned the straightforward shot at goal, following a penalty award, and took a tap. His decision to run caught everyone off guard – including his captain and team-mates – but it led to Conrad Smith slithering in at the corner, a moment that ultimately secured a 20-15 win.
Stuart Lancaster called it “brave” but conceded that he cannot criticise Cruden when he has gambled and won the game having never held the lead until the death. Steve Hansen was a bit more colourful about the choice his fly-half made.
“He was never in jail,” Hansen said when asked, post-match, whether Cruden had gotten his team out of jail. “There were two teams going hammer and tong, hammer and tong. Crudes did something different.”
Arguably the something different was that an All Black executed a skill without spilling the ball. In an uncharacteristic performance, the New Zealand side were prone to dropping the ball frequently while England, and in particular Ben Morgan, troubled Kiwi defenders.
England’s back-row were the epitome of industry, with James Haskell putting in a muscular showing in the fist half and Chris Robshaw more often than not the first support player when a team-mate made a half break.
The problem was that England just couldn’t score. While Marland Yarde and Jonny May were often seen scuttling back to fall on probing grubber kicks, but rarely did they get the ball in too much space in New Zealand’s 22.
Kyle Eastmond and Freddie Burns defied the pre-match blethering to show assured international-standard performances. Indeed, while many expected this channel to be where the All Blacks busted through, the only real damage done to the pair was when Burns came off second-best after a collision with Ma’a Nonu. He was later substituted for Danny Cipriani when cramp got the better of him while Eastmond made an breathtaking break in the second half that stunned Conrad Smith who drifted too much for Eastmond to ignore.
Nonu himself had a subdued afternoon, with his role reserved more for supply and drifting across to offer defensive help whenever England had quick ball and were looking to throw a pass from Burns in behind a decoy runner and into the mitts of Manu Tuilagi who smashed into 85m with ball in hand, a match high.
Debutant Malakai Fekitoa was brought on to try and add some spark in the No 12 channel, while Israel Dagg was hauled off the park on the 55 minute mark. He looked a little confused if not frustrated, but any confusion would have more to do with the fact that Dagg spun from making pitch-churning breaks one minute to dropping straightforward passes the next.
This match was still played at the customary lick you would expect from two Test sides, but with balls going down repeatedly there was a real chance for England to lean on the All Blacks’ scrum. David Wilson shone in the set-piece, while also having a poor day around the park.
However, if there was an area England fans will look to grumble about it would centre around the performance of referee Nigel Owens, who rightly yellow carded Yarde for killing the ball once pantomime villain Brodie Retallick had lollopped up the park. It was whilst Yarde was off that Smith scored in the corner, and yet there were also times when Owens could have brandished a card – the most notable of which came in the first half when Robshaw went clear, could see the line but knew he wasn’t going to make it and so looked to pass. The problem was that Nonu was pulling Haskell back by the shirt so he couldn’t get onto the pass.
Owens did not show a card and you could argue that such a move could have seen England gain advantage. In truth he could have done so and also let a few questionable knock-on calls go, but Owens did what he always does and backed himself. It’s the thing we all like about him so rather than expect change we may have to chalk today up as a blip.
Either way, Burns kicked the goal on an evening where he looked every bit an England goal-kicker. England will be hoping to add tries to that kicking ability next week in Dunedin. With the likes of Owen Farrell, Luther Burrell and Billy Vunipola available for selection but fighting with England’s best performers in the opening Test for a spot, Lancaster should be excited about his side’s prospects.
Yet you cannot look to far ahead without studying this game first. It was quick and hard, error strewn and full of big decisions but it was also a game where England were in the hunt for a rare win at Eden Park. If anything, we now know this England team have the ability and the belief to upset the All Blacks.