It was another case of deja vu for Wales as they held their own for 70 minutes before being overcome by a Black tidal wave. Here we analyse another enthralling Test
Nearly. Nearly. Nearly.
There will surely come a point where all health and life insurance policies sold in Wales will require an additional response being added to the suitability questionnaire.
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The All Blacks snatched the lead from Wales in the 69th minute and eventually won the game by 16-34. The score suggests that the All Blacks were twice as good as Wales, but that would be a grossly inaccurate representation of a fixture in which Wales were the equals of the world champions for large chunks of the game. It seems almost defeatist and apologetic to suggest that Wales played well in defeat, but barring issues at the set piece, they did. Wales’ defence was good – particularly the efforts of Jamie Roberts, Richard Hibbard, Alun-Wyn Jones and Dan Lydiate. Hibbard executed some terrifying hits – at one point it looked as though Sonny Bill Williams would have to be taken from the field in two pieces.
Dan Biggar and Rhys Webb had the defining performances of their test careers and overall the Welsh backrow had parity with their opposite numbers. But (there’s often a ‘but’ when Wales play New Zealand) second half possession of 46% and 40% territory meant that Wales were forced into defending in their own half. Endless, tiring defensive sets, and an unfortunate bounce of the ball, broke Wales – they conceded 19 points in the final 13 minutes. All of which meant that the longest, most humbling record in international rugby continues – Wales haven’t beaten the All Blacks in 26 attempts and counting…
The new Welsh halfbacks
Despite the loss, the performance of Dan Biggar and Rhys Webb was an enormous positive. The speed and accuracy of Webb’s delivery from the ‘base’ had a huge impact on Wales’ ruck speed and allowed the Welsh backline to gain an extra yard on New Zealand’s defensive line. It’s no coincidence that Jamie Roberts’ return to form for Wales has coincided with quick ruck ball and less ‘crabbing’ across the field from the scrum-half position. Webb’s ability to snipe through the first and second ruck guards also prevented the All Blacks’ backrow from drifting too wide, too soon – his try and interplay with Taulupe Faletau being a fine example.
Equally noteworthy was the performance of Dan Biggar. The once ‘Marmite’ figure of Welsh rugby has become ‘Nutella’. Biggar’s tactical kicking, distribution and work under the high ball was exemplary, not to mention his defence – he completed more tackles than anyone in the squad. His critics may point to a missed tackle on Julian Savea, but he’s not the first, nor the last to miss Savea. There are a few positions still up for grabs in Gatland’s team to face the Springboks – though I suspect that nine and ten aren’t.
Alun Wyn Jones. Mr Consistent.
There are some players who rarely gain the headlines for their performances not because they don’t deserve them, but because they have become expected. Alun-Wyn Jones is one of those players. You know that he is going to deliver over and above the expected performance level even before he gets off the team bus.
And so it was against the All Blacks. Together with the increasingly impressive Jake Ball they managed to largely neutralise the impressive Sam Whitelock and, World Rugby’s Player of the Year, Brodie Retallick – few lock forwards have been able to do that this season. If Sam Warburton is the first name on Warren Gatland’s team sheet, I’d imagine that the ink hasn’t even dried on the ‘n’ in Warburton before he pens the ‘A’ in Alun-Wyn.
Set piece fragility
Whilst Wales couldn’t control the bounce of Beauden Barrett’s chip which arguably changed the game in the 69th minute, there were elements of the loss that were entirely controllable, namely the set piece. You simply can’t expect to beat the best team in the world with a 67.4% lineout completion. The lineout is the easiest way to gain and hold territory as well as statistically being the phase from which most tries are scored. The blame will, as it always does, unfairly rest on the shoulders of the Welsh hookers – but it shouldn’t necessarily.
The lineout is the responsibility of all of the forwards – the lifting pod, decoy pod and the hooker. It wasn’t merely an issue of inaccurate throwing, the All Blacks repeatedly challenged the Welsh throw – and predicted the correct jumper with alarming regularity. One area of Wales’ set piece fragility which was easier to isolate was at the scrum. Wayne Barnes clearly had an issue with Paul James’ hinging and it cost Wales a series of early penalties. Full credit should be given to James who immediately altered his body position and avoided what looked like a certain yellow card.
McCaw. 100 as captain.
For all of the positives that can be found in Wales’ failure against the All Blacks there was one player on the field who doesn’t really know the meaning of the ‘F’ word. Richie McCaw doesn’t do failure and has never had the need to derive any positives from anything other than being arguably the finest player that rugby has ever seen. Saturday saw him captain the All Blacks for the 100th time.
To play for the All Blacks is an achievement. To play for them 100 times is ridiculous. To captain them 100 times is insane. After the victory over Wales, McCaw’s record now reads played 100, 88 wins, ten losses and two draws. And whilst the 33 year-old Richie is a yard slower, and his ‘jackal’ isn’t quite as robust as it once was, he is still more than a handful for test players that are ten years his junior. Against Wales he was his team’s joint highest tackler and made more carries than anyone in the pack. Doubt we’ll ever see his like again.