Proud England lament 'fine margins' after agonising New Zealand loss: 'We've got to learn fast'

So close: England fell to defeat against New Zealand by a single point in Dunedin (AP)
So close: England fell to defeat against New Zealand by a single point in Dunedin (AP)

Steve Borthwick and Jamie George were both left lamenting “fine margins” after England fell agonisingly short of a first Test win in New Zealand for 21 years.

The Red Rose men delivered a spirited, battling display in the thrilling opening clash of their two-game series in Dunedin on Saturday, twice leading the All Blacks including with just over 15 minutes to go before two late Damian McKenzie penalties eventually secured a narrow 16-15 win for the hosts in Scott Robertson’s first fixture in charge.

It was an evenly-balanced game for the most part that could have gone either way, but ultimately England were left to rue decisive shortcomings including an errant evening off the tee from fly-half Marcus Smith, who missed three of his five kicks at Forsyth Barr Stadium including two straightforward penalties.

Opposite number McKenzie also struggled as he botched two conversions and inadvertently allowed the shot clock to expire when lining up a late penalty that would have stretched the New Zealand lead to four points with time running out, with both fly-halves leaving plenty of points out on the field.

But McKenzie’s contributions ultimately proved decisive, with England having initially led in the second half after Smith’s second penalty miss as he recovered to tee up a try for the impressive Immanuel Feyi-Waboso, which was crucially not converted.

England - who saw Smith miss a highly makeable early penalty - had also briefly led in the first half after Sevu Reece’s opening try was followed by a close-range score from Maro Itoje, with Ardie Savea hitting back before a successful Smith kick levelled things up at 10-10 at the break.

"It was fine margins, two tries apiece. There wasn't much in that at all," said England head coach Borthwick.

"The second half was a real arm wrestle in the middle of the field. Neither team got into the opposition 22 very often. There wasn't much in it.

"Immense credit to New Zealand for taking their opportunities and getting over the line in the end. The New Zealand bench was very good and played a very smart second half."

Captain Jamie George was also rightly proud of England’s efforts, though urged them to learn lessons quickly at both the breakdown and the set-piece, where they came under long periods of sustained pressure, ahead of next weekend’s concluding Test at Eden Park in Auckland - a fortress where New Zealand have not lost a match for 30 years.

"First and foremost I'm very proud of this team. Not a lot of teams come to New Zealand and do that and that shows a huge amount of growth in this team," George said.

"We wanted to make people back home very proud and I think we did that with our effort. It was very fine margins.

"There are definitely some areas to look at - scrum is one, breakdown is probably another.

"We'll do a lot of honest work this week and make sure we go to Eden Park fully prepared. We'll learn and we'll grow and we'll get better.

"We've got to learn fast, which is something we pride ourselves on. We'll be as prepared as we possibly can be. There will be a few sore bodies.

"We have to get the bodies and the minds right because this is a really exciting week for us."

Quotes from the Press Association.