By Mitch Phillips
LONDON (Reuters) – A try for Damian McKenzie and the boot of Beauden Barrett, featuring his first-ever test drop goal, enabled New Zealand to fight back from 15-0 down to beat England 16-15 on Saturday as their first clash for four years fully lived up to its billing.
Tries by Chris Ashton after two minutes and Dylan Hartley had England on a high as the world champions were harried into mistakes in difficult, rainy conditions.
But they pulled back to within five points just before halftime and edged clear soon after and, helped by a key, late TMO decision that cancelled out what England thought was a match-winning try, made it 15 wins in the teams’ last 16 meetings.
Despite failing to add to that solitary 2012 success, England, who face Japan next week, will take real heart from their performance while the All Blacks will look to cut out the errors when they face Ireland.
From the moment the Twickenham crowd drowned out the haka with a rousing “Swing Low” as the rain swept across the stadium, it felt like it might be England’s day and after a breathless opening half an hour everyone watching was starting to believe it as the home team delivered on their promise of trying to knock New Zealand out of their comfort zone.
Relentless forward pressure from the start opened a huge hole which scrumhalf Ben Youngs spotted, looping a long pass for Ashton, making his first start for four years, to slide in the corner.
England continued to dominate, kicking to make the All Blacks turn at every opportunity and seizing upon a rash of errors by the visitors before setting up Farrell to slot a drop goal.
England’s forwards then took centre stage with an unstoppable rolling maul straight out of their 1990s playbook that carried Hartley and half the New Zealand team over the line.
Farrell converted to make it 15-0 with the All Blacks never threatening an attack.
Six years ago, in England’s only win in the last 15 editions of the fixture, they also led 15-0 only for New Zealand to charge back to within a point before England forged clear.
On Saturday the visitors finally held the ball long enough to force a penalty in front of the posts and skipper Kieran Read opted for a scrum. It looked an ambitious decision but paid off when Barrett’s pop pass sent McKenzie over under the posts.
With halftime beckoning a rare Farrell error, sending the restart straight into touch, allowed New Zealand to make ground and close the gap to 15-10 at the break with a Barrett penalty.
The All Black flyhalf then dropped his first goal in 71 tests to close to within two points early in the second half.
England twice opted for lineouts when given very kickable penalties and lived to regret it when the All Blacks were offered the same opportunity on the hour, Barrett taking the shot to put them in the lead for the first time.
Both sides continued with their kicking game but England failed to take advantage as their lineout fell apart, with man-of-the-match lock Brodie Retallick a constant menace. At the other end England’s committed tackling kept the All Blacks out of the danger zone.
England thought they had won it five minutes from time when Courtney Lawes charged down TJ Pereira’s clearance kick and flanker Sam Underwood scooped up the ball and threw a dummy to befuddle Barrett and reach the line.
A week ago England got the right side of a late TMO call when they beat South Africa 12-11 but this time Lawes was adjudged to have moved a fraction too quickly and the All Blacks managed to play out the remainder safely.
“It comes right down to the wire, that’s what you want in Test matches and why I always love coming to Twickenham,” said Read.
(Reporting by Mitch Phillips, editing by Tony Lawrence.)