England fall just short against New Zealand in Auckland
Last Updated: 07/06/14 5:56pm
Conrad Smith's late try earned New Zealand a 20-15 victory over England in the series opener at Eden Park, the world champions' 15th Test win in a row.
Smith dived over from short range in the right corner in the 78th minute to finally see off a spirited effort from the depleted tourists, who were down to 14 men at the time with Marland Yarde in the sin-bin.
England, without several first-choice players due to injuries and the late arrival of the Northampton and Saracens contingent of their squad after the Premiership final, had threatened a huge shock when four penalties from Freddie Burns gave them a 12-9 lead going into the final 15 minutes.
But the All Blacks, defending a 20-year unbeaten record at the venue, came on strong in the closing stages, Aaron Cruden landing two quick penalties - either side of Yarde's yellow card - to take his tally to five and edge New Zealand in front for the first time at 15-12.
Danny Cipriani's re-introduction to Test rugby from the bench after almost six years sparked England to get back on level terms, the Sale playmaker forcing a mistake in New Zealand's defence and then kicking the penalty himself to make it 15-15 with seven minutes to play - only for Smith to win it at the end after a spell of sustained pressure from the home side.
England were left frustrated by the result but the performance offers hope for the remaining two matches of the series, in Dunedin next Saturday and Hamilton seven days later.
At times they contributed to their own downfall through unforced errors, most notably from butter-fingered prop David Wilson, although given England's dominance at the scrum it would be harsh to criticise the Bath tighthead.
But there was no sense of inferiority as England made a fine start with Chris Robshaw charging into space in an impressive early run and moments later Manu Tuilagi was bundled into touch.
New Zealand had strayed offside and Burns sent the ball between the uprights to draw first blood.
Ma'a Nonu and Burns sent kicks out on the full, but wing Jonny May then invited pressure on England when he knocked on while attempting to catch a kick on his own 22.
Danger loomed as the All Blacks expertly probed the tourists' defence until a telegraphed inside pass was dropped by Richie McCaw, although a penalty under the posts meant Cruden was able to level the score.
Robshaw led the response that started when James Haskell was sent rampaging into space and ended with Kyle Eastmond being tackled just short of the whitewash by Israel Dagg.
England maintained the pressure with Kyle Eastmond, Haskell and Tuilagi carrying well and a fine spell was completed by a second Burns penalty.
The outlook continued to brighten when New Zealand were penalised and Burns landed the three points.
Leicester-bound fly-half Burns was playing superbly, defying the dismal form he has shown this season as he brought Nonu down with a brave tackle.
A soft penalty allowed Cruden to reduce the deficit to 9-6, but England pressed again with a fine kick from Eastmond forcing the alert Dagg into action.
Once again May invited pressure on to England but luckily the All Blacks' indiscipline concluded a moment of panic.
New Zealand are famed for their ability to move up the gears, but they were unable to establish any momentum in the face of steely resistance from their opponents.
Scrum-half Aaron Smith exploited space down the left wing and only the intervention of Ben Morgan prevented a certain try.
England came alive in the 59th minute when Eastmond dummied and side-stepped his way into space, but his pass to the supporting Brown was too high.
Burns and Cruden ensured a nail-biting finish awaited as they each landed penalties.
The momentum was with England but disaster struck as they pressed with Brodie Retallick pouncing on a mistake by Ben Youngs and galloping free until he was hauled down by Yarde.
Yarde was caught on the wrong side of the ruck and sent to the sin-bin with Cruden subsequently kicking New Zealand into the lead.
England responded with a penalty from substitute Cipriani and then profited when Cruden decided to take a quick-tap instead of going for goal and Victor Vito was held up just short of the line.
But the killer blow was landed moments later when Ben Smith sent over Conrad Smith to take advantage of an over-stretched defence and win it for New Zealand.