LONDON (Reuters) - A try for Damian McKenzie and the kicking of Beauden Barrett, featuring his first-ever test drop goal, enabled New Zealand to fight back from 15-0 down to beat England 16-15 on Saturday as their first clash for four years fully lived up to its billing.
Tries by Chris Ashton after two minutes and Dylan Hartley had England on a high as the world champions were harried into mistakes in difficult, rainy conditions.
But they pulled back to within five points just before halftime and edged clear soon after and, helped by a key, late TMO decision that cancelled out what England thought was a match-winning try, made it 15 wins in the teams’ last 16 meetings.
“I thought Sam Underhill had won it for us but I would do,” said England co-captain Owen Farrell. “That’s rugby.”
Despite failing to add to that solitary 2012 success - their sole victory in the fixture since before the 2003 World Cup, England, who face Japan next week, will take real heart from their performance.
“It was a really good step forward because you benchmark yourself against New Zealand,” England coach Eddie Jones said.
“I thought we played the final 20 exceptionally well, we’ll take enormous confidence from that. We’re excited about where we’re going.”
From the moment the Twickenham crowd drowned out the haka with a rousing “Swing Low” as the rain swept across the stadium, it felt like it might be England’s day and, after a breathless opening half an hour it seemed as if it was as the home team delivered on their promise of trying to knock New Zealand out of their comfort zone.
With less than two minutes on the clock Ben Youngs’s long pass opened the door for Ashton, making his first start for four years, to slide in the corner.
England continued to dominate, kicking to make the All Blacks turn at every opportunity and seizing upon a rash of errors before setting up Farrell to slot a drop goal.
England’s forwards then took centre stage with an unstoppable rolling maul straight out of their 1990s playbook that carried Hartley and half the New Zealand team over the line.
Farrell converted to make it 15-0 with the All Blacks never threatening an attack.
Six years ago, in England’s only win in the last 15 editions of the fixture, they also led 15-0 only for New Zealand to charge back to within a point before Stuart Lancaster’s team forged clear.
Sure enough, back the All Blacks came and when they finally forced a penalty in front of the posts captain Kieran Read opted for a scrum. It looked an ambitious decision but paid off when Barrett’s pop pass sent McKenzie over under the posts.
With halftime beckoning a rare Farrell error, when he sent the restart straight into touch, allowed New Zealand to make ground and close the gap to 15-10 at the break with a Barrett penalty.
The All Black flyhalf then dropped his first goal in 71 tests early in the second half.
England twice opted for lineouts when given very kickable penalties and lived to regret it when the All Blacks were offered the same opportunity on the hour, Barrett taking the shot to put them in the lead for the first time.
Both sides continued with their kicking game but England failed to take advantage as their lineout fell apart, with man-of-the-match lock Brodie Retallick a constant menace.
However, the All Blacks were unable to deliver their usual last-quarter dominance as England stayed in the hunt.
They thought they had won it five minutes from time when Courtney Lawes charged down TJ Pereira’s clearance kick and flanker Underhill scooped up the ball and threw a dummy to befuddle Barrett and reach the line.
A week ago England got the right side of a late TMO call when they beat South Africa 12-11 but this time Lawes was adjudged to have moved a fraction too quickly and the All Blacks managed to play out the remainder safely.
“England were very, very good and we showed a lot of character in a hostile environment after being 15-0 down and in the weather conditions,” said All Black coach Steve Hansen.
He also thought the TMO call was straightforward - in theory. “There’s no doubt he was offside, just about in the halfback’s back pocket,” he said.
“What was going through my mind was were they brave enough to make the right decision - and they were.”
Reporting by Mitch Phillips, editing by Tony Lawrence.