After the competitiveness of the first two Tests came a sobering defeat in the third Test in Dunedin, so what did Wales take from the encounter?
A big step backwards
It is painfully ironic that Wales should be blown away, by 46 -6, in the windless environs of the Forsyth Barr Stadium. A scoreline and performance which represented a serious step backwards from the opening two tests – where Wales were at least competitive for 50 minutes. It was a step backwards even beyond the last fortnight, back to the early 1990’s, when Wales were regularly pumped by 40 plus points. There were few positives. The Welsh lineout ran at 100% for the first time on this tour, with Sam Warburton and Taulupe Faletau winning plenty of clean ball from the tail. The ever lively Rhys Webb and resolute Liam Williams were the rare individual highlights. But that’s where the positives end.
Wales completed just 65% of their tackles, as low as I can remember under Shaun Edwards. Despite one glorious scrum on the Welsh line, this aspect of the set piece was unreliable and regularly left Faletau reaching deep into the scrum like a vet birthing a calf – the ball often coming out even messier than the said calf. Just three line breaks meant that Wales were forced into making hard yards and limited them to just 239 yards carried – nowhere near enough to score the necessary five tries required to cope with the AB’s. This was definitely a game too far for the players and supporters alike.
The defensive struggle
Wales completed just 65% of their tackles in the third test. Way below the 90% expected at test level. But the drop in percentage is to some degree understandable. Wales’ impressive defensive completions of the past eight seasons have largely come in the Six Nations where the running lines are more predictable, the passing is shorter and the game is narrower. That is not the case in New Zealand, as Wales have found out. You can’t simply set your feet against an All Black, brace your shoulders and absorb a massive impact.
If you set your feet against triple threat players, who can step, pass and kick, you’ll get burned. It happened regularly in the third test with Israel Dagg and Ben Smith gliding around the Welsh twelve and thirteen channel – Israel Dagg carried the ball further than the entire Welsh team. Even the almost impenetrable Jonathan Davies struggled – missing five tackles for the second week in a row. Much has been made of Wales’ need to reform their attack against the All Blacks’ but the defensive shift is equally as urgent.
Liam Williams. Awesome, again.
Even amongst a hugely disappointing Welsh performance, Liam Williams didn’t disappoint. Steve Hansen said of the Welsh team that many of them appeared to all ready be on the plane home during the game in Dunedin, Williams wasn’t, and he left his mark on the grass as he has done on all three kiwi pitches. With little opportunity to impressive going forward, he made every opportunity to impressive when going backwards with as fine a defensive performance as you’ll see from a wing.
When all around him were losing their heads, and track of Israel Dagg’s and Ben Smith’s running lines, Williams was the most effective Welsh defender with seven tackles made, none missed. But even above his defensive effort was and is his attitude. As the All Blacks ran in their sixth try, Williams looks genuinely gutted. He simply doesn’t give up. He’s like one of those characters at the end of a horror film who requires killing at least five times – even then he’d revive and manage to ankle tap you. This tour may not have panned out as Williams had planned, but he’ll almost certainly have an opportunity to make amends next summer, when he returns.
Dagg is back
It was wonderful to see Israel Dagg once again shredding the test arena. His performance in the third test, as with his Super Rugby form, was glorious. Few full backs in the world are able to hit the line like Dagg and his fidgety running lines caused the Welsh defence enormous problems. So many problems in fact that he carried the ball 252 metres on his own – a staggering amount in test rugby.
With the immaculate Ben Smith on his wing, both sliced through Wales’ 13 channel causing Wales to miss six tackles between Rhys Patchell and Hallam Amos alone. It was a superb individual performance made even more special by the fact that many thought his test career was way behind him. As Brad Pitt uttered in the film Snatch “Do you like Daggs?” Yes we do, Brad. Yes, we do.
So what’s happens next?
There are many possible reasons why this three test tour of New Zealand has been so underwhelming for Welsh rugby. Organising such a difficult schedule in a Rugby World Cup year, leading to player fatigue, being just one. But it would be myopic to blame Welsh rugby’s inability to beat New Zealand on the circumstances of the past 12 months. The downward spiral of Welsh success against the All Blacks is alarming and extends way beyond the past season. Of course, Wales haven’t beaten them for over sixty years, so why should we expect to beat them now?
Well, ‘now’ is very different to the amateur days, where the Kiwis were ‘less amateur’ than Wales, shall we say. That is not the case presently. This is a level playing field and Wales is a fully professional, fully funded tier one rugby nation, which has over the last decade been unable to consistently compete with New Zealand. We’re not even talking about beating the All Blacks, we’re talking about merely competing with them and being within one score in the last ten minutes of the game. This wasn’t even a full strength All Blacks, this was the AB’s very much in rebuild mode. Something has to change, it’s obvious for all to see.