England’s Sam Underhill was denied a late and potentially match-winning try as world champions New Zealand came from 15-0 down to win 16-15 at a rainswept Twickenham on Saturday.
Just four minutes remained when England thought they were about to record just an eighth win in 41 Tests against the All Blacks when replacement Courtney Lawes charged down reserve scrum-half TJ Perenara’s kick and Underhill, weaving his way past Beauden Barrett, crossed.
But French referee Jerome Garces, after consulting South African television match official Marius Jonker, decided Lawes had been offside and disallowed the score to the dismay of a capacity Twickenham crowd of over 82,000.
“I don’t know what I was thinking when I went over,” Underhill told the BBC. “When it got brought back it was what it was but it’s those small margins.
Garces’s decision came just days after a new World Rugby edict declaring that “try scoring should be an on-field decision with the referee being responsible, but the team of four (the referee, two touch judges and the TMO) can all contribute”.
New Zealand coach Steve Hansen praised Garces a “brave” call, while hailing the All Blacks’ resilience.
“England actually got off to a great start,” he said. “We had to show a lot of character to come back.”
Hansen added: “It’s difficult to play when it’s hosing it down. You’re not going to play razzle-dazzle rugby so we had to grind it out.”
New Zealand had earlier recovered from the shock of England’s impressive start to be just five points down at half-time thanks to fullback Damian McKenzie’s converted try and a Barrett penalty.
Fly-half Barrett’s second-half drop-goal and penalty then proved the decisive scores in what was the first England-New Zealand clash for four years — and one that took place fewer than 12 months out from the 2019 World Cup in Japan.
England, fresh from an unconvincing and try-less 12-11 home win over South Africa last weekend, scored Saturday’s first try in just the second minute.
England co-captain Owen Farrell’s well-judged kick-off was knocked on by New Zealand lock Brodie Retallick.
England’s ensuing scrum was solid, with forwards Kyle Sinckler and Maro Itoje then leading the charge into the All Blacks’ 22-metre area.
Scrum-half Ben Youngs’ floated cut-out pass then found Ashton who, taking advantage of some inexplicably slack marking, used the wet turf to slide in at the right corner.
It was a stunning way for the Sale wing to mark his first England start in four years and his 20th try in 41 Tests.
Farrell saw a difficult touchline conversion hit the right post but, with England dominating territory, the fly-half extended the lead to 8-0 with a 10th-minute drop-goal.
Long-range kick specialist Elliot Daly’s penalty then set-up a line-out just 10 metres from the New Zealand try-line.
England won their own ball and a powerful driving maul saw co-captain Hartley, their New Zealand-born hooker, driven over for a 24th-minute try by the posts. Farrell added the simple conversion and England, against all expectations, led 15-0.
– Costly errors –
By this stage openside flanker Underhill, recalled in place of the injured Tom Curry, had already made a number of important tackles.
England then allowed McKenzie to make ground after missing a couple of first-up tackles, with England wing Jonny May eventually penalised for offside as he intercepted a pass.
The All Blacks declined a kickable penalty to opt for a scrum 12 metres out.
Their setpiece was solid and Barrett’s clever inside pass allowed McKenzie to go over on the cutback for a 39th-minute try that Barrett duly converted.
With barely a minute left in the half, Farrell then carelessly kicked the re-start directly into touch, allowing New Zealand a scrum on the half-way line.
The All Blacks gained field position off the setpiece and further England indiscpline allowed Barrett to knock over a penalty in front of the posts.
New Zealand nearly caught England cold right at the start of the second half before wing Rieko Ioane dropped a pass from scrum-half Aaron Smith with a try beckoning.
But they reduced England’s lead to two points when Barrett landed his maiden Test drop-goal before a second penalty nudged the All Blacks in front for the first time in the match.