AUCKLAND – Center Conrad Smith scored a 78th minute try to give New Zealand a 20-15 win over England in the first rugby test on Saturday, extending the All Blacks’ unbeaten record at Eden Park to 32 matches over 20 years.
The match looked headed for a draw after flyhalf Aaron Cruden kicked five penalties for the All Blacks and Freddie Burns had four and Danny Cipriani one for England to level the score at 15-15 as the clock ticked down.
New Zealand passed up a chance to kick for a goal late in the game and, after a first, failed raid on England’s line fell short, smuggled the ball to Smith for the winning score.
England started the match as the underdogs, deprived of many of its most experienced players who arrived in New Zealand late after playing in last weekend’s final of the English club premiership.
But led by captain Chris Robshaw, England fully stretched New Zealand before the All Blacks scored the winning try as the visitors were down to 14 men.
All Blacks head coach Steve Hansen said his players had not been expecting an easy game and were pleased to have been challenged.
“We had to work for it and, again, when you come off limited preparation you’re going to be rusty and we were at times. We’ve got to be honest with ourselves there,” he said.
“Our handling at times was very poor, from our strike players. But again we showed good mental fortitude to stay in the game. I think we controlled the game pretty well in the second half, but just didn’t put them away because of our own errors more than what they were doing to us.”
Cruden and Burns both kicked three penalties to make it 9-9 at halftime, though England played better in the first half and had the advantage in terms of territory and possession.
New Zealand worked its way into the match after halftime but handling errors prevented the squad from taking advantage of several scoring opportunities. Fullback Israel Dagg had a particularly poor night and was replaced after 54 minutes.
“Were were perhaps in the first half caught a half a yard off the pace,” All Blacks captain Richie McCaw said. “It took 40 minutes to build into it.
“It was a lot better in the second half, though the scoreboard shows it was pretty close. I thought after halftime we got back into the game and put some pressure on.”
New Zealand finally found a rift in England’s defense when lock Brodie Retallick picked up a ball knocked on by England scrumhalf Ben Youngs in the 69th minute and sprinted 35 meters down the open field.
Winger Marland Yarde made the tackle but was sent off for a professional foul for holding Retallick down on the play. Cruden then converted the penalty for his fifth goal of the match, giving New Zealand a 15-12 lead.
Three minutes later, however, Cipriani, who returned to the England team as a late substitute, leveled the score again for the visitors with a penalty kick.
New Zealand had another penalty chance soon after that, but sensing the momentum was shifting to its side, gave up the kick at goal and chose to attack the England line instead.
As England’s defense began to weaken, prop Wyatt Crockett got close to scoring but was pulled down inches short. From the restart, New Zealand pressed the line again, then worked swift ball to Smith near the right-hand corner flag and he plunged over the line for the match-winner.
“To come so close, it’s pretty rotten, isn’t it?” Robshaw said. “I think we were pretty evenly matched.”
“There’s two games left in the series and that’s what it’s all about. It’s a three-game series and we’re going to come out all guns blazing and we’re going to get better and better as the weeks go by.”