New Zealand produced another trademark escape act to overcome a belligerent England 24-21 in a waterlogged rugby Test at Twickenham on Saturday.
In a match billed by some as a potential World Cup final between the reigning champions (New Zealand) and the 2015 tournament hosts (England), the All Blacks’ greater rugby nous told as they recorded their fifth straight win over the Red Rose brigade following a 3-0 home series victory in June.
England were 14-11 up at half-time but New Zealand, with captain Richie McCaw scoring a try, hit back in the rain-lashed second half before a last-minute penalty try for the hosts narrowed the gap.
“It felt like we had control for most of the game, bar those last few minutes,” McCaw told Sky Sports.
“We are just happy that our last visit to Twickenham of the season is a win,” man-of-the-match McCaw added.
“Ten months is a long time in rugby though, we will have to see if it has any affect at the World Cup.”
Disappointed England captain Chris Robshaw, like McCaw an openside flanker, said: “The first half we played really well in the right areas.
“Unfortunately in the second half the conditions came down and we could not get field position.”
England kicked-off buoyed by the memory of their record 38-21 win over New Zealand at Twickenham in 2012 and they gave a Test debut to Fiji-born wing Semesa Rokoduguni, a serving British Army soldier.
But their task was not helped by the absence of seven injured British and Irish Lions – Dan Cole, Alex Corbisiero, Mako Vunipola, Tom Youngs, Geoff Parling Tom Croft and Manu Tuilagi, as well as lock Joe Launchbury and centre Luther Burrell.
New Zealand’s matchday 23 boasted more than double the number of caps than England’s squad, while All Blacks wing Julian Savea, with 29 tries in 30 Tests had scored more than England (20 tries) had managed between them.
Despite their relative lack of experience, it took England just four minutes to open the scoring in dramatic style.
The ball was worked wide to left wing Jonny May, who promptly went round New Zealand centre Conrad Smith and then went past Israel Dagg, when it seemed the fullback had lined him up, before going in at the corner for his first international try.
New Zealand hit back in the 14th minute following their first visit to England’s 22.
All Blacks wing Ben Smith beat May in an aerial challenge and the ball was then spun wide, with blindside flanker Jerome Kaino bursting between England captain Chris Robshaw and lock Courtney Lawes.
From a close-range ruck, referee Nigel Owens ruled fly-half Aaron Cruden had just done enough to touch the try-line.
Owen Farrell then kicked two penalties to take England into an 11-5 lead before Cruden responded with two of his own.
Farrell missed a drop-goal but on the stroke of half-time, after McCaw infringed at a ruck, the fly-half kicked England into a 14-11 lead.
New Zealand led for the first time in the match when McCaw crossed after the break to put the visitors 16-14 in front.
New Zealand were a man down when Dane Coles was shown a yellow card in the 57th minute for kicking out at opposing hooker Hartley.
Replacement fly-half Beauden Barrett missed his first close-range penalty but made no mistake with his second to make it 19-14 to the All Blacks.
And then wave after wave of New Zealand attacks was rewarded with a first Test try for replacement prop Charlie Faumuina nine minutes from time.
Next weekend England face in-form South Africa at Twickenham while New Zealand play Scotland at Murrayfield.