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Premiership Rugby

England edge out NZ Maori in tour opener

A Gallagher Premiership Rugby ball

While the appalling conditions ensured that this was no classic, England will be satisfied with an effective all-round performance that will no doubt boost the overseas reputation of English rugby and give coach Clive Woodward plenty of food for thought ahead of Saturday's showdown with the full New Zealand Test side, Shaw and centre Jamie Noon, in particular, demonstrating that they could be ready for a return to Test honours.

At times, England were their own worst enemies, attempting to play high-tempo 15-man rugby when they would have been better served in the damp conditions by putting boot to ball and forcing the Maori back into their own territory.

The men in white's best moments came in the opening exchanges when the forwards exerted laudable control of the ball, the likes of Shaw, skipper Phil Vickery and flanker Martin Corry making huge in-roads around the fringes with a series of controlled drives.

Indeed, England's first try in the eighth minute came from one such passage of play as they attacked upfield in the opening stages, rocking the Maori defence with some powerful surges and forcing a penalty in their opponent's half.

Instead of opting for the kick at goal, England decided to go on the attack – Paul Grayson nudging the ball into touch for the lineout and setting off towards the Maori tryline with a textbook driving maul that saw Shaw claiming the touchdown.

With Grayson adding the extras and then adding a penalty kick in the 20th minute, England were well on their way to erasing some of the bitter memories of their last clash with the Maori – that 62-14 capitulation in Rotorua on the ill-fated 1998 tour.

The NZ Maori – under pressure in the set-piece – could muster only two penalties from Glen Jackson in the first half, one in the opening minute of the clash and another in the 27th minute, England's defensive strategies and dominance up front restricting their scoring chances.

As the first half ticked down, England began to lose some of their rhythm as a number of unforced errors crept into their game and the Maori began to put immense pressure on the English back three through some pinpoint kicking from Jackson and fullback Christian Cullen.

But England managed to weather the storm, going into the changing room at the break 10-6 up. The second half saw England effect something of a change in their tactics, largely foregoing the  convoluted back play in favour of attempting to pin the Maori back into their own half.

Two drop-goal attempts from Grayson and Iain Balshaw went wide of the posts as England tried desperately to increase the gap between them and their opponents.

England came close to increasing their lead in the 50th minute, a flat pass from Grayson and some powerful footwork from Jamie Noon opening up the Maori defence before some scramble defence put paid to the move.

Indeed, the Maori came close to turning defence into attack at this point, some poor communication at the base of an England scrum allowing Rico Gear to hack the ball forwards and set off downfield. The centre showed scorching pace to race down to the English in-goal area, but was just beaten to the ball by English replacement Ben Johnston.

Jackson did manage to grab another three points for his side with his third penalty of the match in the 57th minute, but as the match reached the final quarter, England laid siege to the Maori tryline, trying desperately to make the crucial breakthrough.

At one point England had men over on the right but a bullet pass from Grayson – the Northampton Saint not enjoying his greatest day in an England jersey – missed three of his waiting backline players and went straight into touch.

Grayson missed a penalty some moments later, but made amends with a successful attempt in the 74th minute to increase England's lead.

Then, with the match ticking down to its conclusion, the English pack began to again put huge pressure on their opponents in the set-piece. The decisive score came in the 79th minute – England forced a five-metre scrum and with the rock-solid scrum keeping the Maori defence on the back foot, replacement scrum-half Andy Gomarsall pinned his ears back and surged over the line for the try.

With Grayson adding the conversion to round off a satisfactory win, England can now look forward to meeting the altogether tougher challenge offered by the All Blacks in Wellington on Saturday.

Man of the match: Maori centre Rico Gear looked the most dangerous back on either side by a wide margin, but the English victory was firmly underpinned by a mighty forward effort. For his excellent scrummaging and willingness to make yardage with ball in hand, Gloucester loosehead Trevor Woodman gets the vote.

Moment of the match: Not too many classic moments to recount, but for aficonados of forward play, England lock Simon Shaw's try was one for the archives. A textbook catch-and-drive saw the English forwards surge through the middle of the Maori pack and make a decisive first-half blow.

Villain of the match: The New Plymouth weather did neither side any favours with the slippery ball causing plenty of unforced handling errors.

The scorers:

For New Zealand Maori:Pens: Jackson 3

For England:Tries: Shaw, GomarsallCons: Grayson 2Pens: Grayson 3

The teams:

New Zealand Maori: 15 C Cullen, 14 J Maddock (B Robins 73), 13 R Gear, 12 R Nicholas, 11 B Fleming; 10 G Jackson (W Walker, 65), 9 D Gibson, 8 T Randell (captain), 7 M Parkinson (W Ormond 81), 6 T Flavell, 5 P Tito, 4 K Ormsby (R Robinson 61), 3 C Hayman, 2 S McFarland, 1 G Feek (D Manu 52)

England XV: 15 I Balshaw (B Johnston 48) 14 D Luger, 13 J Noon, 12 S Abbott (A King 74), 11 J Simpson-Daniel, 10 P Grayson (Northampton), 9 K Bracken (A Gomarsall 54), 8 J Worsley, 7 A Hazell (P Volley 63), 6 M Corry (T Palmer 79), 5 S Borthwick, 4 S Shaw, 3 T Woodman (M Worsley 81), 2 D West (M Regan 72), 1 P Vickery (captain)


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