The end of a long and hard fought Premiership season saw players jetting off on holiday, oh no, the England squad got on a plane to New Zealand not to holiday but to take on the best players in the World! With the tour starting a week earlier than usual there were no Saracens or Northampton men on the plane. Instead a lot of men with a point to prove; Freddie Burns who it has to be said had a fairly miserable season with Gloucester was to be the starting Fly Half; James Haskell who many may have thought had seen the back of the England shirt was another returning hero. A mix of experience and fresh faces would line up and face the Hakka, looking for what would be an historical win at Eden Park. I’ve been lucky enough to see the Hakka performed live several times, I have to put seeing it in New Zealand on my wish list! New Zealand were missing a key forward after Kieran Read was ruled out having failed to fully recover from a concussion injury; a hugely sensible decision especially in the light of a few recent incidents!
We were treated to the very high pitched national anthems, these ladies clearly have beautiful voices but goodness it’s hard for anyone to keep in time with them let alone match their tone! The Hakka was as always immense, led by Liam Messon in some style. Nigel Owens was in charge; one of the best refs in the world in my opinion. Freddie Burns kicked off, Jerome Kaino took the ball with no opposition, Aaron Cruden returned the kick and England had the first attacking opportunity despite the fact that David Wilson appeared to knock on. Chris Robshaw popped out of the ruck with the ball and made a great run; James Haskell was on Robshaw’s shoulder until he was pulled back by Ma’a Nonu. Nonu was very lucky not to see yellow; the pull back was in effect a professional foul! Freddie Burns scored the resulting penalty putting the visitors ahead with a mere 3 minutes on the clock. Nonu gave England a further advantage when he kicked the ball straight into touch; he’s surprised me in the last few games by how he’s improved his kicking; not this time. Freddie Burns made the same error in the next attack. I have to say with only 5 minutes gone? Stuart Barnes was already getting on my nerves!
Nigel Owens made the first of a few disappointing calls when Jonny May was judged to have knocked the ball on giving the All Blacks a scrum put in on the England 22. Mr NZ Rugby God Richie McCaw knocked the ball on as his team attacked but a penalty was waiting to be given as England strayed offside. Cruden kicked an easy 3 points. England attacked with some flair, passing the ball across the field, involving backs and forwards, this time Mike Brown was the man to knock the ball on in a great position; to be fair to him the pass wasn’t a good one. However the next error involving Brown and May was a schoolboy one, as the ball was kicked to clear the All Blacks line both men went for the same ball, the ball was knocked on. Manu Tuilagi saved the day as the All Blacks surged forward, touching the ball down just before an All Black hand found it. England had a great attacking spell, with both Ben Morgan and James Haskell shining. England were rewarded with a penalty, Burns backing himself pointed at the posts, then calmly scored the 3 points.
Burns put England further ahead with a superb kick after his forwards won a penalty in the scrum, it was great to see his confidence running high. Robshaw gave away the next penalty, at a distance but in front of the posts as he kicked the ball from the side of a ruck; a silly 3 points to give away as Cruden also seemed to be in form. Rob Weber cutting a less than svelte swathe found himself with a pressure throw with 10 minutes to go, he threw the ball in with the necessary skill allowing England to clear their lines. The combined strength of Ben Morgan and the fairly diminutive Kyle Eastmond won England the put in to the scrum as the All Blacks attacked. Richie McCaw had a go at coming in at the side in a very major way but David Wilson had already knocked the ball on, I have to say it was a totally outrageous piece of play by McCaw! The All Blacks went on the attack from the scrum spreading the ball across their very scary looking backs; Israel Dagg knocked the ball on and kicked it straight into the hands of Manu Tulilagi. I’m afraid that at the risk of picking on David Wilson I need to mention that a very promising attack was messed up by a shocking pass from the prop! James Haskell got the blame from Mr Barnes commentator as he flicked the ball forward but the pass to him was a poor one!
The All Blacks were given the chance to even up the scores after England tried to play the ball out of their own half, Haskell was penalised for going off his feet, after Joe Launchbury was flattened by Owen Franks and Dane Coles, quite amazing to see the 2 front row men push Launchbury back! England had their best try scoring opportunity of the half after a kick from Freddie Burns was charged down. The ball landed straight in Rob Webbers’ hands, his quick thinking saw him pass out to Tuilagi who linked with Brown; England stormed up the pitch spreading the ball across the pitch before returning to the right wing. The chance to score a try was thrown away as Burns was put under pressure to drop a goal; he missed; a wasted opportunity! The sides went in at half time all square.
The 2nd half started with an England lineout after the ball was knocked out from Crudens’ kick off. The ball was won by Geoff Parling who’d had a great 1st half but the men in white found themselves under pressure after Aaron Smith put in a kick down the line. Jonny May found himself on his own line with no room to clear the ball and Jerome Kaino bearing down on him. Luckily Dane Coles had a strange moment and took Chris Robshaw out off the ball! Penalty to England and a good show of indignation by Robshaw! Kaino looked perturbed but simply walked away, he knew his back up man was in the wrong. The All Blacks had another attacking opportunity as Dagg made a break through the middle of the pitch; it looked for a while as if England had forgotten how to tackle! Ma’a Nonu simply swatted Tuilagi off as he ran down the wing! This time Joe Launchbury saved the day! The All Blacks had a couple of promising attacks, play was slowed down after Nonu knocked the ball on. England were awarded a penalty in the scrum allowing them to clear their half.
Aaron Smith who seemed to have come out of the changing rooms on fire made an amazing pass as he was falling in the tackle. He brought a speed to the game of the All Blacks that Danny Care brings for England; such a shame that injury put him out of contention! England had a number of 22 kick outs and Marland Yarde further introduced himself to Israel Dagg with a couple of great chases. In an incident that mirrored the Jonny May ‘knock on’ Freddie Burns was adjudged to have made the same error. With hopefully non biased eyes I believe the officials actually made the error again! Fortunately Israel Dagg most certainly did drop the ball after a poor pass by Ma’a Nonu. England had their first run of play to speak of 12 minutes into the half ; Nonu had a go at taking of Yarde’s head but I presume the officials take was that Yarde was on the way down? Burns kicked the ball hard and high, Dagg leapt and totally missed! Yarde ran on to the ball, his kick going too far. Aaron Smith showed another touch of brilliance as he broke then kicked after a scrum; Kaino fumbled the ball on the line preventing a certain try. England found themselves defending their line with a scrum put in. Ben Morgan picked the ball up from the base of the scrum making a superb run; Eastmond was the next to break through the All Blacks defence as he threw a dummy fooling Nonu; his pass to Brown was wayward which slowed the play down. May picked up the pieces and England progressed through the forwards, the All Blacks turned the ball over and Aaron Smith box kicked the ball away. England made good ground through Brown and May, but were halted by another drop by David Wilson; he wasn’t having a good day at the office as far as handling was concerned!
Now we come to what would be considered a controversial moment of the game in the light of a later decision. Jonny May kicked the ball forward for himself gathering it very close to the All Black line; he was clearly held almost within inches of the try line. A penalty was awarded but no yellow card brandished; see that later episode and result towards the end of the game! Freddie Burns kicked perfectly again to put England ahead; it was great to see his confidence so high. The All Blacks were given a penalty almost immediately to even the scores again as Tuilagi was deemed to be offside. Aaron Cruden scored with what was a simple kick. And here comes the next controversy! Brodie Retallick standing at ‘extremely tall!’ made a great run half the length of the pitch, he was a sight to behold! Marland Yarde in pursuit took his man down, he failed to release him. Now then, the man wasn’t near the line as May had been. Yes the offence was worthy of a card, but in this instance I agree with Barnes (please don’t tell anyone!) he should have been joining a man in black! Danny Cipriani made an appearance with 10 minutes remaining and made an instant impact as he broke through the All Blacks defence, flying through the air as he was taken down; a fair tackle? Not so sure it was, it looked on the dangerous side to me. A penalty was awarded as the All Blacks went in at the side. Cipriani who I must confess has been a real favourite of mine, coolly scored the 3 points! Back to 15 apiece.
With less than 5 minutes remaining Cruden eschewed a fairly certain 3 points taking a quick tap rather than kicking at the posts. The All Blacks could smell blood as they attacked against the 14 men of England. I went all shivery as Wyatt Crockett (what a name!) drove towards the line, unlike that horrible moment when a similar move resulted for in the Premiership winning try the ball was short. The next effort after a strong All Black try broke English hearts as Conrad Smith took a great pass from Ben Smith to dive over and score. The sign of a champion team? The All Blacks won by that try All Blacks 20 England 15. It’d be great to be a fly on the wall of the England coaches room when Stuart Lancaster is picking his team for the 2nd test; some very hard decisions top make!