Conrad Smith's late try settled an enthralling contest as England pushed New Zealand all the way in a 20-15 win for the All Blacks.
Conrad Smith's late try settled an enthralling contest in Auckland as England pushed New Zealand all the way in a 20-15 win for the All Blacks.
Smith's finish in the corner settled a contest in which for 75 minutes the world champions were utterly rattled by Stuart Lancaster's tight-knit squad, who humbled their critics.
So little was expected of England that their first-half salvo seemingly caught everyone off guard, the All Blacks searching for some rhythm as England's kicking game forced errors.
Kieran Read's absence was more sorely felt than expected despite the experience of Jerome Kaino in the eight jersey, England getting the better of the collisions. Their captain, Chris Robshaw, was outstanding.
Big names for New Zealand went missing. Israel Dagg was arguably the biggest culprit, hauled off with 25 minutes to go. Dane Coles laboured. So much had been made about England being scratchy and deprived of their best players, but New Zealand were dismal until their final surge.
England have only ever won twice in New Zealand – 1973 and 2003. The All Blacks haven't lost at Eden Park since 1994. This simply wasn't meant to be as close. It was stunning.
Ma'a Nonu's streetwise but illegal slight of hand was crucial to stop James Haskell from latching onto Robshaw's opening burst, the England captain carrying his men behind enemy lines. Burns scored his first points as England landed the primary blow.
Burns was easily under the greatest pressure, the number ten from Gloucester hungry to put a dismal season behind him.
His first penalty was true, but a kick to the corner wasn't quite judged to perfection. He had to be inch-perfect at Eden Park, but showed great bravery in defence.
Asking England to remain error-free for the entire 80 minutes though was impossible.
Jonny May's knock-on set up New Zealand with an attacking scrum, Cruden knocking over the first points for the All Blacks after England went offside.
Robshaw and Burns though were in control. Consecutive penalties from the soon to be Leicester number ten established a 9-3 lead for the visitors as they dominated the territory, doing the basics well but not without the odd mistake.
Eden Park felt oddly flat. For many, England being so competitive was a surprise, let alone to be ahead.
Still, this was New Zealand's first match since November. The rusty edge had to wear off eventually, Cory Jane's chip over the top leaving Manu Tuilagi in a foot race to prevent the game's first try.
Overall in the opening half though, they were way off the pace. England in turn were smart, finding the touch with their kicks to the corner and inspired by a tenacious Robshaw. The scrum made in-roads. Geoff Parling, back in the starting XV, had his lineout ticking over.
What had seemed completely impossible – a win at Eden Park – suddenly didn't feel so unrealistic. But England were too clever, losing concentration as Joe Launchbury ran into a double tackle and was penalised for holding on.
Cruden tied things up at 9-9 ahead of the interval, a pretty decent return considering the lack of flow in New Zealand's play. Burns' drop-goal attempt as the hooter sounded fell wide to the left.
Where was the All Blacks' backlash? England's decision making had to be perfect but May nearly landed them in trouble with a headless run near his own line when the boot would have been preferable.
An open contest favoured the All Blacks but England's scrum was on top, both sides belting the leather of the ball in a search for territory.
Kaino came closest to the first try, the ball just not rolling up his fingers in the chase or Aaron Smith's kick with the line beckoning.
The five-metre scrum for England should have been a concern for the visitors but they turned into gold, Morgan's thundering run set up a Kyle Eastmond break that struck a match under the contest. Forget about the Kiwi backlash, this felt like England's to win.
May, so enigmatic and at times infuriating, found the outside arc and his kick had Barrett scrambling back by his own line and forced to concede the penalty. Burns, perfect up to his point, landed the crucial kick.
Tuilagi straying offside handed New Zealand a reprieve as Cruden tied things up again at 12-12.
When Brodie Retallick cantered into the loose, showing impressive speed for a man of his stature after he latched onto the error of Ben Youngs, Marland Yarde in a desperate act slowed the ball down and was sin-binned for his troubles, Cruden booting the All Backs into the lead unbelievably for the first time.
What a time for Danny Cipriani to enter the fray. His speedy break put England behind the defensive line and with Burns off, the Sale man was charged with kicking the resultant penalty to tie up the scores. Nerves of steel brought the scores level once again.
The injection of Keven Mealamu's experience and skill always felt like it might have an impact and his turnover did the job winning a penalty that Cruden was surely certain to kick.
But New Zealand were fed up of playing on the back foot. Taking it quick, Cruden tries to make the space for Barrett and Vito leading to Wyatt Crockett charging for the line. Only the TMO could decide whether he made the line. Not given. Had the gamble backfired?
Not with Conrad Smith around. The great centre was there in the corner receiving the brilliant pass from his namesake Ben to wrap up a contest the All Blacks must have never envisaged would be so close. Eden Park erupted, with relief more than jubilation.
England will have been stung, but the cavalry are coming and they have won the respect of the All Blacks. New Zealand will get much, much better.
For New Zealand:
Pens: Cruden 5
Pens: Burns 4, Cipriani
Yellow Card: Yarde
New Zealand: 15 Israel Dagg, 14 Ben Smith, 13 Conrad Smith, 12 Ma'a Nonu, 11 Cory Jane, 10 Aaron Cruden, 9 Aaron Smith, 8 Jerome Kaino, 7 Richie McCaw (c), 6 Liam Messam, 5 Sam Whitelock, 4 Brodie Retallick, 3 Owen Franks, 2 Dane Coles, 1 Tony Woodcock
Replacements: 16 Keven Mealamu, 17 Wyatt Crockett, 18 Charlie Faumuina, 19 Patrick Tuipulotu, 20 Victor Vito, 21 TJ Perenara, 22 Beauden Barrett, 23 Malakai Fekitoa
England: 15 Mike Brown, 14 Marland Yarde, 13 Manu Tuilagi, 12 Kyle Eastmond, 11 Jonny May, 10 Freddie Burns, 9 Ben Youngs, 8 Ben Morgan, 7 Chris Robshaw (c), 6 James Haskell, 5 Geoff Parling, 4 Joe Launchbury, 3 David Wilson, 2 Rob Webber, 1 Joe Marler
Replacements: 16 Joe Gray, 17 Matt Mullan, 18 Henry Thomas, 19 Dave Attwood, 20 Tom Johnson, 21 Lee Dickson, 22 Danny Cipriani, 23 Chris Pennell
Referee: Nigel Owens (Wales)
Assistant Referees: Jaco Peyper (South Africa), JÃ©rÃ´me GarcÃ¨s (France)
TMO: George Ayoub (Australia)