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Sevens days ago, England won a game they barely deserved to by a single point.
This time, their performance was better in almost evert department, but they lost – by a single point. It took New Zealand an hour to take that slender lead but when it came, they never let go, and won a quite epic Test match. If the weather was filthy throughout, the rugby was of bone-crunching quality and intensity.
England thought they had the game won, when Sam Underhill – who had the game of his life upon his recall at opened flanker – jinked and outfoxed Beauden Barrett to score in the corner with six minutes to go.
But it was chalked off when the TMO adjudged the Courtney Lawes charge-down that set it up to have come from an offside position. It was the tightest of calls, and one most of 82,149 at Twickenham did not agree with.
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The sense was that if England were to compete, they had to start like a train. Led by Underhill’s relentless tackling and carrying, they did exactly that. A solid first scrum was followed by carries, each bigger than the last, from Ben Te’o, Kyle Sinckler and Itoje.
They drew All Blacks in, and Ben Youngs spotted Chris Ashton lurking lonelily out wide. Ashton does not miss from those positions and had a score on his first start in four years. They had hardly looked like scoring a try in 80 minutes last week; this time, they had one inside two.
Twenty minutes later they had another, entirely different, try. When Elliot Daly sidled up to the penalty just inside New Zealand’s half, the crowd assumed he was going for goal, and cheered. Instead, he found a brilliant touch seven metres out.
Dylan Hartley found his man, then ploughed into a 13-man rolling maul that just careered towards the line. Hartley emerged from the mess of bodies with a try to his name. This time, Owen Farrell converted a far simpler shot.
The All Blacks were never going to get through a half pointless, though, and by the break England’s lead had been trimmed to five points. Most teams would have taken the points when presented with a simple penalty inside the opposition’s 22.
Instead, they scrummed – monstrously – and, after pressure on the line following Ryan Crotty’s carry, Barrett slipped Damian McKenzie over to score.
When another penalty came two minutes later in a similar position, they played the percentages and accepted three points. That penalty came about after some sloppy work from England as Farrell, until then superb, botched his restart straight into touch.
Still, England would have accepted any lead going into the break. Underhill had been everywhere, Hartley as abrasive as ever, while in a 14-minute cameo as Brad Shields had an HIA, Courtney Lawes made a cool eight tackles.
In the whole first 40, only Underhill and Itoje made more, on either side. As they held England held their on-field debrief, they knew they would have to take their games to greater heights to keep their lead.
That half-time gee-up would be Hartley’s final act as Jamie George was introduced earlier than usual. The early throes of the second half were all New Zealand as England soaked up phases in their own half.
After strong running from the Smiths, Ben and Aaron, Ardie Savea spilled the final pass, while two minutes later Rieko Ioane was squeezed for space and knocked on. They could not quite break through but, with an advantage, Barrett cut that lead by three more points, with his first drop goal in 71 Tests.
Again, this was an outcome England would have settled for and, when they got down into the opposition 22, they chose to revisit a tactic that had proved so successful earlier on. Twice, the backs joined in with the rolling maul but twice it could not quite breach New Zealand’s defence, although Ben Youngs and Kyle Sinckler came close.
As the game drew on, New Zealand grew and England creaked, especially at the lineout. Barrett took three points to give New Zealand their first lead but England kicked with intelligence to find positions of strength, which the inaccuracy of that lineout often wasted. Brodie Retallick, the man of the match, was a huge part of the disruption at the set piece.
They spent much of the final quarter camped in Kiwi territory and could not quite cross the line – legally at least. In an arm-wrestle, they had gone toe-to-toe with the world champions, forcing them into pragmatic goal-kicks and accepting the points. The All Blacks, as England had last week, just had enough might.