The All Blacks have started their Grand Slam campaign with a 26-16 victory over England at Twickenham. The win was anything but convincing, as they looked disjointed and struggled to get any momentum going, allowing England to stay in the game until the very end.
It was a new-look England game-plan, mimicking that of New Zealand and Australia by running the ball from anywhere and everywhere to test out the All Black defence. To England's credit, the plan was successful, and England looked dangerous when it got the ball to its backs.
It seemed a question of how long England would last playing at this pace, but it didn't show any signs of slowing down. Come the final five minutes, it was England doing all the attacking, not New Zealand, which was left hanging on by the skin of its teeth.
It was the men from Down Under who were first on the board, as Sonny Bill Williams threw one of his trademark offloads to Jerome Kaino, who found Hosea Gear out wide to touch down in the corner.
The All Blacks extended their lead to 14-0 soon after, as Kieran Read crashed over off a pick-and-go close to the line.
At that point, it seemed business as usual for the All Blacks as they looked like they were going to run all over an England team that was unable to contain New Zealand's dangerous backline.
That didn't happen, however. In fact, this was the last of the All Black tries as they failed to execute from then on, often dropping ball or throwing poor passes.
The teams exchanged penalties to take the score to 17-6 at the break, before Daniel Carter kicked one more to give the All Blacks a 14-point buffer. The game was effectively sewn up by this stage, and it seemed the All Blacks thought they had it won as they started slow and were very loose for the remainder of the game.
On the other hand, the English came out with a purpose, finally crossed the line after a Sonny Bill Williams mishap saw them kick the ball through, and the scrambling All Blacks were unable to stop Dylan Hartley score a try (that could have been pulled up for any number of reasons), from the pick-and-go a phase later.
Two more penalties to New Zealand and one to England saw the score go to 26-16 and when Jerome Kaino was sin-binned with 9 minutes to play with England hot on attack. It seemed that it was game on.
But as we have seen time and time again from England, it couldn't finish. It created many an opportunity to score, but failed, as the All Blacks hung on to win by 10.
It was a game that England could have won and a more skillful team would have won. England simply didn't take any of the many opportunities presented to it--often it was simply a bad pass that cost the team what should have been a certain try.
That said, the All Blacks certainly didn't operate like a well-oiled machine either, dropping too much ball to expect to dominate an English team up to the task of stopping them.
It seemed at times they were trying to over-complicate things, with backline moves that just ended up confusing the attacking side more than the defending team. They took poor options, kicking good ball in optimal attacking positions.
The much talked about midfield pairing of Ma'a Nonu and Sonny Bill Williams didn't feature after the first 30 minutes, as Nonu was used more as a dummy runner, while Williams was well looked-after by a solid English midfield.
Daniel Carter was off his game, and other than one break in the first half, struggled to create anything, taking some bad options at times. Notably his 22m drop out that went out on the full in the final five minutes was a blunder equal to that of Stephen Donald's much-criticised clearance kick a week previously.
The back three of Mils Muliaina, Hosea Gear and Joe Rokocoko, as dangerous as they were, were guilty of trying to do too much with no support, and as a result turned over a lot of ball.
Alby Matthewson delivered a good performance in his first test start, directing play well and providing good ball for Carter to work with.
The forward pack was average and was beaten to the breakdown by the England forwards far too often, ultimately conceding 20 turnovers.
Kieran Read and Sam Whitelock were both outstanding, getting involved heavily and both showing huge work rates.
Richie McCaw had a quiet game by his standards, but was till solid, while his blindside flanker Jerome Kaino struggled to gain his usual dominance and was penalised heavily.
The front row struggled at times in the scrum and were subsequently penalised by the referee, meaning the All Blacks were unable to get much clean ball to work with from set-piece.
These problems must be fixed if the All Blacks are serious about challenging for the Grand Slam. One can't expect to continue to play at a sub-par level and win test matches consistently. It seems likely that Conrad Smith and Jimmy Cowan will both be reintroduced to the team for the matches against Wales and Ireland, which will offer more experience and should give the All Blacks the defensive edge that they lacked against England.
They will progress onto Edinburgh next week, where they will take on Scotland. This will be an opportunity to give most of the reserves a run and should be a relatively comfortable win. They then march on to play Ireland and Wales, where they will have to be more clinical, better organised, and smarter with the options they take.