England came within a whisker of a memorable victory over New Zealand only to fall short, 16-15, at Twickenham.
Dominant in the opening half-hour, Chris Ashton and Dylan Hartley crossed for tries to open up a 15-0 lead.
However Damian McKenzie’s try just before the half-time, and a Beauden Barrett penalty, got New Zealand back to within five points.
And it was the All Blacks who had the better of the second half, with a Barrett drop goal and penalty earning them the narrowest of victories.
England could not have hoped for a better start, Brodie Retallick knocking on the kick-off and handing them early territory.
They took full advantage, from the resulting scrum England’s forwards drew in the defence before a brilliant wide pass by Ben Youngs found Ashton in acres of space. He needed no second invitation to race over in the corner. Owen Farrell’s conversion came back off the post but England led 5-0.
That lead was extended when Farrell slotted a drop goal after more English pressure, with New Zealand barely able to get out of their own half.
With the rain coming down, handling was difficult, and Sam Underhill seemed to relish every tackle as he piled the pressure on for England.
From one high ball that was not gathered cleanly, Barrett gathered in an offside position. England went to the corner and then with a driving maul that involved virtually the entire team, Hartley dotted down.
Farrell converted this one and England were in dreamland at 15-0 with 25 minutes on the clock.
An All Black response was inevitable, and it finally came in the final five minutes of the half. From an attacking scrum Ryan Crotty drove at the heart of the defence getting to within inches of the line. With the forwards defending for their lives, New Zealand turned to their backs, with Barrett’s inside ball putting McKenzie over.
Barrett converted and then added a penalty with the final play of the half to leave England lead 15-10 after an enthralling opening 40 minutes.
New Zealand came out firing at the start of the second half and were almost in again when McKenzie raced through a gap, found Ben Smith who in turn fed namesake Aaron. He could not make the final pass though, with Ardie Savea set for a clear run-in.
They were back within two shortly after though, with Barrett slotting a drop goal after more All Black pressure. England were under the cosh, and just before the hour only a fantastic turnover from Underhill prevented another try.
But when they strayed offside, Barrett made no mistake from the penalty to make it 16-15 to the world champions, their first lead of the game.
Still England kept battling, and five minutes from time it seemed they might have won it. Courtney Lawes charged down TJ Perenara’s box-kick, Underhill collected and raced away, dummying Barrett on his way to the line. The try was disallowed though, Lawes having strayed offside, and New Zealand saw out the game.
What they said:
Eddie Jones (England head coach): “We’re obviously devastated. You take the good with the bad, we’ll learn a lot from that. We had opportunities to win the game, we didn’t take them, they did so they deserved to win the game. All credit to New Zealand.
“It’s a really good step forward because you benchmark yourself against New Zealand. They are the best team in the world. We’ll get a lot of reward for the work that we’ve done. You look at it, they have been together for three months, we’ve been together for less than three weeks.”
Steve Hansen (New Zealand head coach): “England have showed today that they are going to be competitive against whoever you want to play against them.
“Eddie Jones and his staff should be proud of that.”
Player watch: Sam Underhill
England had made three changes to the team which beat South Africa last week, including a start for Sam Underhill in place of the injured Tom Curry.
Underhill had already shown what an impact he can have during the 2018 Six Nations, and he was everywhere in the first half here.
The personification of England’s remarkable intensity in the first half-hour, he made tackle after tackle as New Zealand failed to get a foothold in the game.
As the All Blacks started to control the game more, he was still very visible, with one brilliant turnover preventing a certain try.
And but for an offside from Courtney Lawes on a chargedown, he might even have snatched the victory for England five minutes from time.
It would be easy to say the disallowed Underhill try, but the game probably turned at the end of the first half.
Having barely threatened all half, New Zealand finally hit their straps, and scored ten points in the space of two minutes.
Ryan Crotty’s introduction seemed to make a real difference, setting up McKenzie’s try, and the penalty with time up on the clock was even more crucial.
– Just as they had in 2012, the last time England beat New Zealand, the Red Rose opened up a 15-0 lead. It was almost enough to see out the win.
– Ten players in the England team reached double figures for tackles, with Sam Underhill and Maro Itoje making 20 apiece.
– In his first Test start in four years, Chris Ashton needed just two minutes to get on the scoresheet. He now has 19 tries in 40 Tests.