England left kicking themselves after agonising defeat against All Blacks

England could theoretically still draw this two-Test series but on a cold night at the bottom of the South Island they were reminded of one of rugby’s oldest truths. If you want to beat New Zealand on Kiwi soil you need to be at your absolute best and an inability to take the majority of your opportunities is invariably going to be fatal.

And while England were gallant, committed and occasionally inspired, they will also look back and know this was a game they ultimately allowed to slip away. In a tight contest three missed kicks from Marcus Smith, one of them from almost bang in front of the posts, permitted New Zealand just enough wriggle room to secure a narrow victory that ensures the Hillary Shield will stay in the southern hemisphere.

It was desperately close, though, with England still pressing forward after the hooter had sounded. In the end, though, two second-half penalties from Damian McKenzie were enough to ensure the successful All Black relaunch under their new head coach Scott ‘Razor’ Robertson. If he keeps on winning tight games we will be seeing plenty of ‘Razor sharp’ headlines in the next few months.

The All Blacks celebrate a penalty in the final seconds that secured their victory. Photograph: Joe Allison/RFU/The RFU Collection/Getty Images

England will be kicking themselves. This was so nearly just the third Test win England have ever managed in New Zealand and their first in the South Island. Having taken a deliberate collective step forward to challenge the haka before kick-off, however, they ended up being re-acquainted with New Zealand’s time-honoued ruthlessness and ability to take half-chances.

The better early chances had fallen to the visitors, with Smith missing a penalty and a knock-on ruling out a possible try for Manny Feyi-Waboso, but it was the All Blacks who scored the first points, with a cross-kick by McKenzie finding Sevu Reece who rode Tommy Freeman’s tackle to score.

Sevu Reece rides the tackle of Tommy Freeman to score. Photograph: Hannah Peters/Getty Images

The scrum contest was also proving tricky so it was a relief for England when, after a period of close-range pressure, Maro Itoje crashed over and Smith’s conversion put them briefly in front. Joe Marler, though, was off before the end of the first quarter, requiring Fin Baxter to trot on in the most challenging of Test debut scenarios.

New Zealand are too savvy a rugby nation not to recognise a good time to strike and, sure enough, a missed midfield tackle was all it took to get in behind the white shirted defence and give a gleeful Ardie Savea the chance to finish. England’s blitz defence is designed to cut down the opposition’s time and space but it can be a high-risk strategy.

And yet, despite the visitors’ slightly patchy display, there was nothing to separate the teams at half-time. A Smith penalty after the hooter, after Scott Barrett had been pinged for not releasing on the floor, dragged his side back level at 10-10 and gave the England coaching staff the chance to sit their troops down and emphasise the opportunity still open to them.

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The messages clearly sank in. While Smith wasted a glaring penalty opportunity from straight in front of the posts, England were suddenly looking more dangerous with ball in hand and, after a couple of forward surges had been rebuffed, the ball was moved left to the unmarked Feyi-Waboso who calmly did the rest.

The stakes already high, rose by another couple of notches. The noise in the indoor stadium, with its unique polytunnel-style roof, also increased appreciably when McKenzie nailed a well-struck angled penalty to drag the score back to 15-13. All Black fans are not the noisiest in the sport – even putting the ‘din’ in Dunedin does not come entirely naturally – but they know an increasingly tense game when they see one.

And when another, simpler McKenzie penalty put the hosts back in front again it seemed that might be that. By now England had changed both half-backs and their skipper Jamie George had also been replaced by Theo Dan, leaving English hopes in increasingly callow hands. On this occasion, there was to be no fairytale ending.

The Guardian

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