Three tries each, some scintillating play, controversial TMO calls, a late fight back and a home town hero lighting it up from full-back: this Test had it all, writes Alan Dymock in Dunedin.
When Richie McCaw said his full-back Ben Smith was “a champion” post-match, just after beating England 28-27 in the second Test in Dunedin, he held a big grin.
The full-back was the pick of the players on the day – a day for running rugby under the roof at Forsyth Barr – but in the second half a three-try blitz from local hero Smith, Julian Savea and Ma’a Nonu was enough to see the All Blacks clear, despite an impressively strong first 40 minutes from England. This Test was one of the most thrilling encounters you could hope to witness and one which ensures there is a strong rivalry between the two nations, stretching into 2015.
The first half fizzed with England galloping into a 10-6 half-time lead, a step and hanging pop finding Marland Yarde who glided through a McCaw tackle to score the only try of the first half. It felt as if there could be an upset on the cards and a when a Manu Tuilagi 60m break was reeled in by Ben Smith there was a sense that the world champions were holding on by their fingertips.
However, the All Blacks never seem to get rattled and while England huddled on the halfway line just after the break while their counterparts in black came out scowling, not talking at all, ready for business.
Smith was very quickly put through under the posts after a two-on-one was created by Savea, who enjoyed a busy game opposite Tuilagi. The menacing winger was a particular threat zeroing in on the hole between England’s centres and he also scored one himself, taking his total to 20 tries in 21 Tests. Then, when Nonu managed to step inside Yarde’s and Luther Burrell’s tackles after a sensational half-break from Conrad Smith, scoring a Kiwi third, the mood changed again.
This England side will, of course never roll over, and while Mike Brown scored a controversial try that looked for all the world like it was not grounded in the TV replays, England got into the right areas at the death. And there was nothing controversial about the last score, with Brown expertly collecting an out-the-back-door offload from Tuilagi – looking all the more comfortable at centre than he did at wing – and he put away Chris Ashton, who could only give a mini-splash to score.
This series is now officially New Zealand’s, but as All Blacks head coach Steve Hansen said: “There’s been nothing in it.”
A one-point loss will be tough to take, but this side had to concede to the quality of their hosts and as England head-coach said after the match, his team deserved a half-time lead and did well to come back in the fourth quarter of the game, but the third section was were the All Blacks really showed their quality.
There was frustration there and plenty of positives, from an English point of view, but in the end it was a performance of champions from New Zealand in the face of staunchly challenging opposition still learning lessons abroad.
England captain Chris Robshaw probably summed it up perfectly when he said there was “no secret recipe” to the All Black’s quality. It’s just that they are “probably the most dangerous side in the world” when you switch off. But it’s not over. Not by a long shot.
“We came down here to win a series and we haven’t done that,” Robshaw agreed before defiantly saying: “We still want to win a game down here.”
This match was a show from the elite level of rugby. Let’s all hope it carries on in the same entertaining manner for the third Test in Hamilton, as well as in the now-important mid-weeker against the Canterbury Crusaders.