England coach Eddie Jones insisted his side had “finished the stronger” after an agonising 16-15 loss to world champions New Zealand at a rainswept Twickenham on Saturday.
England surged into a 15-0 lead midway through the first half following tries from right wing Chris Ashton and New Zealand-born hooker Dylan Hartley.
But the All Blacks fought back by scoring 16 unanswered points with full-back Damian McKenzie’s 39th-minute try supplemented by Beauden Barrett’s conversion, and two penalties either side of a drop-goal — the fly-half’s first in 71 Test matches.
Yet England, missing some 17 players through injury and suspension, thought they had won the match with four minutes left when impressive openside flanker Sam Underhill crossed for a try after Courtney Lawes had charged down New Zealand replacement scrum-half TJ Perenara’s kick.
– ‘Won the final 20’ –
But experienced French referee Jerome Garces, after consulting the television match official, ruled Lawes had been offside and disallowed the score, effectively ending England’s bid for just an eighth win in 41 Tests against the All Blacks.
Nevertheless, with the 2019 World Cup in Japan on the horizon, Jones said: “I thought we played the final 20 (minutes) exceptionally well.
“If you look at any sort of metrics in the last 20, we won that final 20,” the Australian added. “We’ll take enormous confidence from that.
“The All Blacks, sorry New Zealand, generally run away from teams in that area and they couldn’t break us,” said Jones, whose side had launched their November campaign with an unconvincing — and try-less — 12-11 win at home to South Africa last weekend.
“In fact, we finished stronger. If we’d kept going for another five minutes, we would’ve got them. We’re excited about where we’re going.”
Reflecting on the match as a whole, former Australia and Japan coach Jones said: “We’re obviously devastated. We had opportunities to win the game, we didn’t take them, they did.
“They deserved to win the game. Full credit to New Zealand.”
As for Garces deciding to disallow Underhill’s try, Jones said: “I don’t comment on those decisions…Sometimes the game loves you and sometimes the game doesn’t love you.
“You’ve got to accept if you stay in the fight long enough, the game will love you.
“And we’re prepared to stay in the game.”
New Zealand coach Steve Hansen praised Garces for being “brave enough” to ignore the roars of the crowd.
“There was no doubt he (Lawes) is offside. He’s just about in the half-back’s (scrum-half’s) back pocket.
“What was going through my mind was are they (the officials) going to be brave enough to make the right decision? And they were. It’s good.”
Hansen added: “I thought England were very, very good and I thought we showed a lot of character. To be down 15-nil, in a hostile environment in front of 80,000 people, 79,999 of them not being Kiwis, and the weather conditions. It wasn’t conducive to playing razzle-dazzle rugby.”
New Zealand centre Sonny Bill Williams could miss next Saturday’s clash with Six Nations champions Ireland in Dublin after going off with a first-half shoulder injury at Twickenham that Hansen said could take “a week, maybe two” to heal.
Meanwhile Jones said he was looking forward to “sushi and sake” ahead of England’s next match, against Japan at Twickenham.
“We’ll have a three-day preparation for the game,” explained Jones, who guided Japan to a colossal upset victory over South Africa at the 2015 World Cup in England.
“It’s a good test for us. We’ll see how cohesive we can get in a short space of time, which mimics what we need to do at the World Cup.”