The hosts looked to be heading for a second autumn international loss with tries from Dalton Papali’i, Codie Taylor and Rieko Ioane putting the All Blacks in control and on course for revenge in the first meeting between the teams since the 2019 World Cup semi-final.
When Beauden Barrett kicked a drop goal with 71 minutes on the clock, New Zealand’s advantage stretched to 19 points but he was sin-binned for an infringement in the build-up to Will Stuart’s first score and Freddie Steward crossed minutes later to set up a grandstand finish.
Replacement Stuart completed the remarkable turnaround when he bundled over for his second on the stroke of full-time with Smith kicking the extras but the England fly-half was booed when instead of going for the win against 14 men, he kicked into touch to settle for a share of the spoils following a thriller.
“It is always up to players mate. I trust their decision-making. I am not on the field. I don’t have access to them. I just trust their decision,” Jones insisted following the 25-25 draw.
“We’re disappointed we didn’t win the game but a draw is a draw and the dominance they had in the first half, we could have fell away.
“You’ve seen better teams than us fall away against the All Blacks and get beat by 40 or 50 points. I have coached teams that have done that.
“When you get absolutely pulverised by them – like we were in the first half – and you don’t stay in the fight, you can get blown away even more.
“We stayed in the fight, which I think the leadership of the team was outstanding. Owen (Farrell) did a great job in his 100th cap with (Ellis) Genge and Jack Nowell. Then the other significant thing was the support of the crowd.
“The crowd were absolutely fantastic, which definitely lifted the players, so we are grateful to the 81,641 that were there. I don’t know what happened to the other 359!
“They will be kicking themselves but we hope there is 82,000 next week complete because it will be a hell of a game (against South Africa).”
Captain Owen Farrell had to shake off an ankle injury at the end of the first half to soldier on in his 100th Test appearance.
England were second best for much of the contest and had no answer to New Zealand’s slickness in the opening 40 with Papali’i capitalising on Jack van Poortvliet’s intercepted pass and Taylor crashing over inside 10 minutes.
The TMO denied Ioane a further score, following another van Poortvliet error, after the All Blacks centre grabbed Farrell around the neck but he did get on the scoreboard in the 50th minute when he collected Caleb Clarke’s offload following Beauden Barrett’s brilliant crossfield pass.
But England against the odds snatched a draw and Farrell also backed Smith’s decision with the clock in the red.
He said: “We wanted to see where we were at off the ruck. If we could go forward, go on the front foot and we had an opportunity, then we wanted to take it. If not we wanted to make a good decision. I think that’s what was done.
“I think the belief showed by the team in that second half was outstanding. I felt like we were always in the game.
“We stayed at it and had proper, proper belief today and I’m proud of the team for that.”
It was a difficult evening for Leicester scrum-half Van Poortvliet in only his sixth Test but Jones insisted the experience would benefit the 21-year-old and heaped praise on fellow half-back Smith’s second-half display.
“Brilliant young player, brilliant young player and that is one of the best games for him where things don’t go well and you have to battle through. That’s where they learn a lot,” Jones said of Van Poortvliet.
“And that’s the best 40 I’ve seen Marcus play in Test rugby. Aggressive, decisive and wanted to own the game, not as an individual but part of the team, so I thought that was a big step forward for the young man.”
All Blacks head coach Ian Foster admitted he was surprised by England’s decision to settle for the draw but accepted it was his squad who walked off most disappointed.
“Was I surprised? Yeah I was. All I know is flip it over, I’d have liked our guys to have a crack so not sure what their tactics were,” Foster conceded.
“We’ll certainly be more disappointed than them. End of the day it is a draw.
“We’ve come here and played some great rugby. In our mind we should have walked away with win.”