AUCKLAND, NZ – Rustier than a gate at a haunted cemetery, the All Blacks managed to get out of Eden Park on Saturday night with a highly unconvincing win over an England side picked by many to lie down quicker than a North Shore girl on a bachelorette party. The difference: a solitary try to Conrad Smith with four minutes remaining that put the home side into the lead for the first time in the match. So, how did it take that long for the best side in the world and current World Champions to put away a team missing nine first-choice players?
All Blacks 20 (Conrad Smith try, Aaron Cruden 5 pen) England 15 (Freddie Burns 4 pen, Danny Cipriani pen)
The simple answer is that the game itself never really got going at all and that did not suit the All Blacks one bit. Yes, this was a pretty poor test match and no fun to watch. From the opening kick off mistakes started appearing on a regular basis. England first five Freddie Burns knocked over two penalties early to establish a lead that should’ve stung the All Blacks into action, but they choose to keep hitting the snooze button. Aaron Cruden answered with a couple of his own but the first half’s only real chance came when Cory Jane popped through a chip and chase after an outside break. However, it was easily defused by Manu Tuiliagi. The half spluttered to a conclusion with both sides locked up at 9-9.
England earned themselves their best chance 20 minutes into the second half when Johnny May regathered a kick on the All Blacks five-metre line and went close to muscling over. However, the best result the visitors got was another penalty which Burns knocked over. This was then cancelled out immediately off the kick-off when England were caught offside. Danny Cipriani replaced Burns and slotted another penalty, which again was matched by Cruden.
However, the largest bit of drama came with five to go with the scores locked. With a game-winning penalty from 40 out on offer, Cruden took a quick tap and found England napping down the right side. The home side smashed away and looked to have botched it when Wyatt Crockett was adjudged to have grounded the ball short of the line. However, from the resulting scrum the All Blacks kept their head and created space for Conrad Smith to fall over the line to score the winner.
Noticeably, the All Blacks looked to be relieved when the final whistle went, however it was clear that captain Richie McCaw was shooting an angry look at anyone who appeared to be celebrating too much.
Scrums seemed to be a real lottery, both sides enjoying dominance but never managing to put two together in a row. Lineouts were clean with both sides winning all their ball.
The goal kickers can be proud of their night’s work; a missed conversion of Smith’s try the only blemish.
So what the hell happened? I’ll be the first to put my hand up and admit that I got my prediction massively wrong. I thought the All Blacks, having named a largely unchanged team from last year and having most of their key players in good Super Rugby form, would be able to click back into gear. They didn’t and it was painful to watch. Israel Dagg probably played his way out of any solid future in the team with an awful performance, but he wasn’t the only one to make a litany of basic mistakes. Dumb penalties were in abundance, with the majority being turned into points. The crowd could sense something was amiss early as the atmosphere at Eden Park was strangely flat. They only perked into life when Smith scored and that was more a collective sigh of relief than anything else.
I’d love to say England played really well, honestly I would. That would at least be a good explanation for the All Blacks being so poorly. They defied everyone’s expectations and battled hard, but the fact is they were guilty of just as many errors as the All Blacks. If they had minimized those they would’ve won easily. It was almost as if they were as surprised as anyone else that they were in the game right up until the end and if they had taken their game to the next level and attacked with a bit more purpose the holes in the All Blacks defense would’ve opened up more times than the one clean line break that Manu Tuilagi made in the second half. However, their defense was rock-solid, which was both admirable and incredibly frustrating for the NZ supporters. It is ominous to wonder how good this team could potentially be if this is what they are like understrength and not even playing that well.
So the big question is what happens next week? The All Blacks rarely play badly twice in a row and will probably not make too many changes as they get thrashed at training. What Stuart Lancaster now does with his side will be interesting. He’s got all his top players arriving for this game, but the fill-in’s all provided compelling cases for them to be doing more than just sitting in the stands next Saturday.
Man of the Match: It’s not often you give out these to players on the losing team, but English fullback Mike Brown showed why he’s currently regarded as the best in the world. The real credit in his performance lies in the fact that he had a horror start, dropping the ball twice, but regathered his composure and put in a classy showing.
Moment of the Match: Cruden’s tap was looking like a moment of madness when Crockett was denied, but the All Blacks found what they needed to win the game.
On a personal note, I attended the game and was lucky enough to sit next to some of the England Under-20 team, who are here to compete in the World Championships. They were a friendly group of guys and I wish them all the best for the tournament. England always have plenty of support wherever they go and the older, more boisterous supporters definitely drowned out a very quiet Eden Park with their drunken singing.
That’s it for now. Feel free to comment below, please look for and “Like” our Facebook Rugby Wrap Up Page and follow us on Twitter@:RugbyWrapUp, Junoir Blaber, Nick Hall, James Harrington, Jamie Wall, Jaime Loyd, DJ Eberle, Cody Kuxmann, Karen Ritter, Jake Frechette and Declan Yeats, respectively.