Hamish Rutherford had a magnetic compass to keep him focussed on becoming the ninth New Zealander to score a century on test debut.

His 171 consolidated the hosts' powerful position heading into the fourth day of the opening test against England at University Oval, despite the loss of five wickets during the middle session.

New Zealand is 402 for seven, a lead of 235 runs. In Hillary-Tenzing parlance they are at base camp, about to push up Mt Everest's south col.

Rutherford kept looking to the scoreboard and dropped his eyes to the right where the yellow and green flag of the Green Island Cricket Club fluttered proudly in the atmospheric gloom.

"The Green Island boys were over in the back corner. I also knew where my girlfriend was; next to the Barmy Army having a good time. I have no idea where my mother was."

Rutherford's mum, Karen Broad, was in prime position, watching from the pavilion's Long Room. His father Ken, the former New Zealand captain, observed from Johannesburg.

The University Oval - where Rutherford made his highest first-class score of 239 almost a year ago against Wellington - looked every bit his home ground. The 23-year-old's wagon wheel look like a pack of spaghetti had been dropped on the floor. England's bowlers provided him with too much width and the only area not carpeted regularly was through mid-off. Rutherford struck boundaries at will, including a cover drive off Steve Finn to bring up his century in 139 balls.

In an appropriate touch, Kane Williamson, the last New Zealander to achieve the feat was at the wicket. Rutherford took off his helmet, raised his arms and bat and acknowledged the standing ovation from the crowd and the dressing room. He got a Williamson hug.

Rutherford's innings is the second highest by a New Zealander on test debut. He fell 43 runs short of Mathew Sinclair's 214 record against the West Indies in the 1999 Boxing Day test at Wellington. Rutherford is the second cricketer to achieve the feat at the University Oval. Pakistan's Umar Akmal was the first in 2009, making 129.

Rutherford was modest assessing his rapid ascent through the ranks, given he established a permanent place in Otago's first-class team less than a year ago.

"There were a few dark times but I started working in a coffee shop and doing bar work. I began getting more life enjoyment through cricket, as opposed to looking at it as work."

"Cricket is not a be-all-and-end-all. We're not saving babies. If you nick off, you nick off. Scoring runs is my job."

Rutherford provided the spine to the New Zealand total but several other cameos helped like Kane Williamson's 24, Ross Taylor's 31, Dean Brownlie's 27 and Tim Southee's 25. Captain Brendon McCullum, batting at No 6, is unbeaten on 44; Bruce Martin is 17.

Peter Fulton deserves special mention, making 55 on his return to test level for the first time since 2009. His 158-run stand with Rutherford was New Zealand's highest opening partnership since the 163 set by Mark Richardson and Stephen Fleming at Nottingham in 2004.

The first delivery with the new ball at 267 for two was a catalyst for England to impact. Jimmy Anderson had Rutherford caught at mid-wicket. Wickets fell steadily throughout the session with England taking five for 118 from that point. Anderson has figures of four for 108.

England - at least judging by Anderson's gobful to Taylor as he departed - are gaining in confidence. However, the lead gives New Zealand a platform to launch an assault on victory with two days to play. Overcast weather, but little rain, is forecast for the final two days.