LONDON -- Mark this down as an opportunity missed for England, as proof again of why the All Blacks are the best side on the planet and why the old adage of games being decided by the bounce of the ball is a thing of the past. Nowadays, they are decided by one person's call in a van stationed in the Twickenham car park. Who'd be a Television Match Official?
"Sometimes the game loves you," said Eddie Jones, the England coach. "Sometimes it doesn't." Like last week's call against South Africa which went in England's favour but split opinion, this week's was down to small margins and it was dubious.
It was an offside call, in the build-up to Sam Underhill's remarkable effort -- he turned New Zealand's Beauden Barrett inside out before scoring what looked like a match-winning try. However the TMO, Marius Jonker, deemed Courtney Lawes to be offside when he charged down TJ Perenara's kick. Try ruled out. Jones kept his counsel when asked about the incident after the match, while New Zealand coach Steve Hansen said Lawes was basically in Perenara's pocket he was so offside. A different TMO on a different day would have given it England and Lawes' way but on balance, it was the correct call.
But while the TMO call was the match-deciding part of the game's narrative, it should not define it. Bar the final two minutes of the first half, it was a truly astonishing performance by England. They were ruthless, aggressive and caused New Zealand to make uncharacteristic errors. The All Blacks looked rattled as England leapt into a 15-0 lead.
After two minutes Chris Ashton, in his first start for England in four years, scored in the corner. Owen Farrell then knocked over a drop-goal and the superb Dylan Hartley headed a 13-man driving maul to stretch England's lead to 15-0. Though without a number of first-choice players through injury, the patched together front-row held up well and the second-rows matched their All Blacks counterparts. They were superb and finished well.
But then came a wonderfully worked New Zealand try and an uncharacteristic Farrell error from the restart led to the Kiwis carving the lead from 15 points to just five before the interval. From there they edged ahead in the second half for the first time and managed to close it out, despite England playing the better rugby in the final quarter.
At the centre of this Test were two exceptional performances. For England it was from Underhill and for the All Blacks it came from the best second row in the world, Brodie Retallick.
This was a match where Underhill came of age. He was physical, abrasive and had an engine which went the full 80. The try would have capped his remarkable performance, but this will be a Test which could see him tie down the No.7 shirt. Not just for now, but for the Rugby World Cup in Japan next September and October.
There were other impressive performances from England with Ashton and Kyle Sinckler superb. Ashton was playing like it was 2010 again, bouncing around in his own unique way while Farrell again proved why he is in the top three fly-halves in the world. And spare a thought for Brad Shields. All week he was subject to thinly-veiled, back-handed compliments from the All Blacks camp. But the England No.6, who was born in New Zealand and was capped by them at Under-20 level, performed well at blindside.
But then there was Retallick. England's previously watertight lineout disintegrated in the second half as Retallick picked off Jamie George's darts. In the first half, it had been Hartley feeding the England lineout, but the co-captain was taken off at the break with an injured thumb having put on a showing bordering on his finest under Jones.
In the second half, as Retallick got his paws all over the England pack, the All Blacks took the tempo out of the match, strangled England at times and pounced on their misfiring set piece. England will wonder if they made the right decision to go for the corner early in the second half instead of kicking for the posts. There will be those who say now, with hindsight, it was the wrong call as England failed to return with points. Later, with England camped on the All Blacks' line, they failed to set up a drop-goal for Farrell.
Lessons will be learnt but it showed how much belief is in this team and how they are becoming player-led on the field, a long-held goal of coach Jones. Farrell will have grown as a captain for the experience. You can't magic that from thin air.
England took a stride forward here, a defeat yes, but a fine performance. That will come as scant consolation, the standards they have set are not for mere valiant defeats.
"You have got to accept that if you stay in the fight long enough, the game will love you," Jones said. "We're prepared to stay in the fight so we will get some love further down the track, don't worry."
For all of that, the All Blacks proved once again why they are the finest side on the planet. They were far from their best at times, but still came away with a win. That's the mark of a side who will go to the World Cup as clear favourites. England, though, will be fueled by this defeat in teeming rain at Twickenham. Now they have to turn the small margins in their favour.