New Zealand 20 England 15: Freddie Burns unable to steer Red Rose to win
New Zealand 20 England 15: Freddie Burn impresses as the Red Rose are narrowly beaten in the first Test at Eden Park
An impressive performance from the boot of Freddie Burns was in vain as England fell to a last-gasp 20-15 defeat against New Zealand in the first Test at Eden Park.
The Red Rose – without Northampton Saints and Saracens representatives following last weekend’s Aviva Premiership final – put up more than a fight in Auckland and Burns, who will join Leicester Tigers next season, kicked 12 points in a faultless showing from the tee.
Burns, who played 20 Aviva Premiership games for Gloucester Rugby in the season just gone, was far from the only England player to impress against the All Blacks however.
Harlequins’ Chris Robshaw and London Wasps’ Joe Launchbury shone in the pack, while Gloucester’s Jonny May almost secured an historic victory for the Red Rose.
England have now prevailed just twice on New Zealand soil in 13 attempts, while the All Blacks are unbeaten in 32 and have not lost at Eden Park since 1994.
And their class and tenacity was proven once more as Conrad Smith crossed with just two minutes to go, with the scores locked level at 15-15, to deliver the opening blow in this three-Test series.
England almost got through in the opening minute through Robshaw, but the Red Rose captain was halted on his way to the try-line.
However, Ma’a Nonu pulled back the supporting James Haskell and Burns slotted a second-minute penalty.
The All Blacks almost found their rhythm in the ninth minute and, although a try was denied by Richie McCaw’s poor handling, Aaron Cruden fired over a simple kick to level the scores.
Up the other end England thought they had dotted over through Burns, but the try was ruled out as Mike Brown was, correctly, adjudged to have knocked on.
But England continued to press and the pressure led to a penalty, out wide on the left, as New Zealand infringed at a ruck – Burns dispatched it expertly.
The fly-half was enjoying a great start and he laced another three-pointer between the sticks on 21 minutes to extend England’s advantage to 9-3.
Cruden added his second penalty of the day shortly afterwards and then, just before half-time, levelled the scores once more going into half-time.
The All Blacks stormed out of the blocks at the start of the second half but England’s defence stood firm.
Israel Dagg was at his best, breaking the visitors’ line on a couple of occasions, but a superb England rearguard kept the scores level.
After 17 minutes of sustained New Zealand pressure, Kyle Eastmond broke in England’s first attack of the second half, after some fine work from Ben Morgan.
They were halted inside the home side’s 22, but it was evidence that the tourists were here to more than make up the numbers.
May tried to enforce that point just after the hour mark when he chipped ahead and somehow reclaimed the ball a couple of metres from the hosts’ line – nearly forcing his way over.
The All Blacks held him out but infringed at the ruck and Burns landed another tricky kick to make it 12-9.
Just as hopes began to rise, Cruden levelled the scores up once more and Marland Yarde was then sent to the sin bin on 69 minutes for failing to release after a searing break from Brodie Retallick.
Cruden added the three points to take the hosts into the lead for the first time in the contest but Danny Cipriani – on for Burns – made an immediate impression by racing through the All Blacks defence and slotting over a penalty to make it 15-15 with just six minutes to go.
However, there was one last twist. Despite having the chance to win the game with a kick, the hosts boldly decided to run and almost made it count through Wyatt Crockett.
England held them up once more but Conrad Smith crossed in the right corner after some almighty pressure to seal a dramatic late victory.