Seven days after having lady luck smile on them, England were on the end of yet another controversial finish at Twickenham as New Zealand secured a 16-15 comeback victory.
Two early tries from Chris Ashton and Dylan Hartley, plus five points from the boot of Owen Farrell, put England 15-0 up in just 24 minutes as they threatened to pull off a second upset victory in as many weeks. But New Zealand, having looked a shadow of their usual selves, eventually fought back as Damian McKenzie and Beauden Barrett cut the deficit, and it was the latter’s drop-goal and penalty that ultimately secured the All Blacks a fifth consecutive victory over England.
But having seen the TMO rule in their favour last week over Farrell’s controversial tackle on Andre Esthuizen, this time it was for Marius Jonker to chalk off Sam Underhill’s 76th-minute try, with the South African deciding that Courtney Lawes was offside with his chargedown that released the flanker to score.
It proved a highly contentious decision that will debated just as hard, if not harder, than last week’s, but it should not be lost that England are proving themselves a match for the best teams the world has to offer.
Six years ago it was Ashton’s try in the left corner that killed off the All Blacks challenge and secured what was only England’s sixth victory in history in this contest. But where that try ended a contest, his one just two minutes into this match made one.
To be fair, it couldn’t have been made much easier for him as the All Blacks, arriving nine days in advance to avoid any jet lag for this fixture, were fast asleep for the opening quarter. As Farrell and Ben Te’o drifted left, the All Blacks failed to spot Chris Ashton staying right, and Ben Youngs looped a miss-pass to the wing who had more than enough to sprint in from 20 metres out. Different corner, same result, though Farrell missed the conversion.
By their high standards, New Zealand were awful, and the main culprit was Beauden Barrett. Too often he missed touch with his kicks and when he failed to take a high ball, England attacked, and before the visitors new what was happening Farrell has moved into the pocket and fired over the lesser spotted drop-goal to increase the lead to eight points.
The 82,149 in attendance were rocking, and before they knew what was happening, England were in again.
Damian McKenzie by all accounts was being peppered by the high ball from Youngs and Farrell, and after England forced a penalty when New Zealand were caught offside from another failed catch from Barrett, England went for the jugular. Farrell kicked to touch on the 22m, and with Maro Itoje safely securing possession, England set-up the driving maul. Much has been made about this apparently underpowered pack not being able to bully teams up front, but the maul rumbled towards the try line and when Farrell, Te’o. Henry Slade and Ashton added there weight, co-captain Hartley was driven over to add a second try.
Farrell’s conversion put England 15 points to the good and within 24 minutes New Zealand were on the ropes.
But they are back-to-back world champions for good reason, and finally Barrett started to find his feet to get New Zealand out of neutral and into first gear. The injury-enforced departure of Sonny Bill Williams helped them, with Ryan Crotty providing a much better link in midfield, and when they finally broke the line they forced a penalty in front of the posts that would surely cut the deficit by three. Not for this side though, as Kieran Read made the gutsy call to go for the try, and within three phases Barrett sent McKenzie over on his inside shoulder as Slade and Farrell were sucked in and Te’o couldn’t get across to cover in time.
With their tails up, New Zealand pressed on and forced another penalty soon after, but with fewer than 60 seconds left on the clock Read this time pointed for goal and Barrett duly obliged, with the out-half punishing England for being offside.
Having been a bewildering two points down last weekend despite being dominated for the entire half, England will have wondered how they were only five points ahead. But the second half started in a more familiar pattern, with New Zealand attacking from all areas and England clinging in by the skin of their teeth.
Ardie Savea should have gone over in only the second minute of the half, but Ben Smith’s incisive break in midfield and Aaron Smith’s supporting line went unrewarded as the final pass was behind flanker Savea and dropped as a result.
Barrett would cut the deficit further though with a drop-goal of his own five minutes later, with the phrase ‘London busses’ murmuring throughout the stadium, and when Ashton was caught offside in the 60th minute, Barrett successfully kicked a difficult effort to put New Zealand in front for the first time.
England would not give in though, and with time running out, it looked like they’d won it. Replacement Courtney Lawes used every part of his six foot seven inch frame to charge down TJ Perenara, and with Underhill gathering and outsmarting Barrett to go over in the corner, the stadium erupted in delirium. Garces awarded the try, only to then decide to check if Lawes was onside, and unable to decide himself he left the decision to Jonker.
“Offside” came the call, the decision was overturned and New Zealand were left to celebrate knowing how much of an escape this was.