New Zealand required a 78th-minute try from centre Conrad Smith to secure the 20-15 victory in the opening match of the three-test series at Eden Park, though few had given the visitors any chance of finishing within 20 points.
Stuart Lancaster’s side had been written off before the game because several first-choice players only arrived in the country on Wednesday following the England club final, while others had been ruled out of the tour due to injury or personal issues.
Instead, a team that had five players in the starting side with less than 10 caps showed Lancaster’s plans to overhaul the side and build depth ahead of next year’s World Cup were starting to pay off.
“England aren’t a bad side – I’ve been trying to tell you that,” All Blacks coach Steve Hansen said.
“We’ve got a lot of work to do between now and next Saturday, we know now this is going to be one of those special test series.”
The series had been touted as a chance for bragging rights for the winner ahead of the World Cup and the All Blacks will have plenty of work to do in the next six days if they are to clinch the series at Dunedin on Saturday and send a message to the rugby world.
“It was a typical first test really,” Hansen told reporters in Auckland on Sunday. “Everyone expects us to jump out and be perfect straight away.
“We probably have that expectation as well but sometimes it’s a struggle. We struggled with our skill execution (but) … I think another six days we will step up a few more levels and be in a better position to really gauge where we are at.”
Bullocking winger Julian Savea would likely be available for the clash after he was ruled out of the first game with a knee injury while number eight Kieran Read was improving from his concussion-like symptoms, Hansen said.
“Kieran is training pretty well at the moment. He did an hour and a half yesterday with no signs or symptoms.
“So it’s just a matter of, with his lack of games, whether we chuck him back in or do the safer thing and give him a week of training and hold him back and save him for the third test.”
The possible return of Read and Savea aside, Hansen will keep a close eye on the performers at training in Dunedin.
He has normally given players who have underperformed in one week a second chance to prove themselves.
As such, there should be few changes to the side he will name on Thursday, though, with Savea’s possible return, he may be forced to rejig the back three.
Savea’s absence was noticeable on Saturday. The All Blacks lacked the punch in the backline and the balance of attack the left winger provides with the physically smaller Israel Dagg, Ben Smith and Cory Jane all very similar in their approach.
Dagg has a knee injury that has been affecting him and Hansen said on Sunday he may be rested next week in Dunedin.
Should Dagg miss the match and Savea return, Smith is likely to shift to fullback.
(Editing by Ian Ransom)