Wales 16 New Zealand 34: Four talking points
Four talking points from our man in Cardiff as Wales' dismal run against the southern hemisphere big three continues
Wales clock out early again
The latest defeat by New Zealand, their 26th successive since 1963, again showed up one of Wales’ biggest problems: they can’t play for 80 minutes. It isn’t even a new problem, or one that has come about in the last year or so. It pre-dates Warren Gatland’s arrival as head coach in 2008, but there is seemingly no end in sight. At least it isn’t the 40 or 50-minute performances that Wales sides of the past used to produce. Wales were in the game for the best part of 70 minutes against the All Blacks. To go in at the interval with the score at 3-3 was an impressive improvement on their last encounter with the world champions, two years ago when they were 23-0 down at the break, but it is another case of so close, yet so far away after going 16-15 up with 12 minutes remaining. Despite the scoreline, there had been a noticeable swing towards the world champions’ favour as Wales struggled to maintain the intensity in defence that had tested Steve Hansen’s men in the first half. The All Blacks are the best in the business at producing late wins when they need it — see Scotland last week, Australia last month and, perhaps more famously, Ireland last November for recent examples of it. In the fierce heat of battle, the All Blacks become ice cold as they turn up the temperature on their opposition, and so it was again, as Beauden Barrett benefited from a lucky bounce that evaded Leigh Halfpenny and Wales’ replacement scrum-half Mike Phillips had a clearance charged down by Kieran Read. The biggest thing Warren Gatland and his coaches need to work out, and fast, is how to get Wales playing for all four quarters, and not call for replacements for the sake of it, as it appeared to be this weekend when Jake Ball, Dan Lydiate and Richard Hibbard were withdrawn early into the final quarter. If they can do that throughout their five matches in the Six Nations, and back it up in the summer warm-up matches, then they will be capable of qualifying from their Rugby World Cup pool of death next year, but they must return next week with the same level of intensity against South Africa — that 31-30 defeat to the Springboks just five months ago with a penalty try in the closing minutes in Nelspruit as Wales blew a big lead will be fresh in the minds.
Self-belief issue kicked into touch
The question of whether Wales have the belief to beat the southern hemisphere’s big three comes up every time there is a contest. Already this year, Wales have lost four times, including the two defeats in South Africa in June. Against Australia earlier this Dove Men Series, Wales came close again, while the margin of victory against the All Blacks flattered New Zealand. Despite the negatives from proud Welsh men and women heading to the match, with some doom merchants predicting an All Blacks win by more than 30 points, it was clear that the Wales players were very much up for taking on the world champions, and they were magnificent in defence for all but those final dozen minutes as the glut of replacements disrupted the game. The backs in particular saw stand-out performances from centre Jamie Roberts, who was strong in the tackle and targeted Beauden Barrett with some bone-crunching bursts over the gainline; outside-half Dan Biggar was bold and largely accurate with his kicking game, compared to his opposite number Barrett; full-back Leigh Halfpenny was defensively solid and seemed keen to get Wales counter attacking at every opportunity, but he was turned over on two crucial occasions, while scrum-half Rhys Webb also got the Wales machine moving forward, and showed great composure to score his try before going off injured in the second half. There were also plenty of big contributions from the forwards, with the back row trio notably impressive against their illustrious opposition: Dan Lydiate was back to his impressive best despite limited club rugby, Sam Warburton justified his continued inclusion at the expense of Justin Tipuric, while number 8 Taulupe Faletau also proved to be a handful. If there are concerns, they are at the set-piece. Wales were mugged too many times on their own throw, while the scrum started off badly and remained shaky under the interpretation of English referee Wayne Barnes, who wasn’t too impressed with loosehed Paul James’ early efforts. Simply put, in this performance it showed that the current Wales squad do believe that they can go up against the best, if not for 80 minutes. It isn’t belief that is the issue, but being able to deliver for the full match. That’s the key area in which Wales have fallen short too often. So instead of taking about perceived crises of confidence when South Africa come to South Wales next week, the focus needs to be on what Wales desperately need to improve on to play for 80 minutes and win. There isn’t much they can work on in terms of conditioning, but a better scramble defence when energy levels are running low has to be a starting point.
World champions there for the taking
South Africa have defeated the All Blacks this year in the Rugby Championship, Australia drew with them, Scotland almost turned over a much-changed side, and now Wales came within 12 minutes of victory. What the 2014 international campaign showed the world was that the All Blacks are not the invincible machine some would have them be. They are human. Against Wales, and their heroic blitz defence, there were so many missed passes, wayward offloads or handling errors, missed tackles and penalties, that on another day they would have lost. Sonny Bill Williams, as exciting as he can be in attack, tried a few tricks too many, especially in the first half. Less than a year out from the Rugby World Cup, that should stir the senses in any challengers for the world champions’ mantle. It is rare to see the great entertainers as woeful as they were at times under the Millennium Stadium roof. Of course, there is still plenty of time for Steve Hansen and his players to work on their issues, but there are noticeable cracks that need to be repaired. Warren Gatland declared that the All Blacks had been rattled by Wales. Steve Hansen, his opposite number, didn’t think it was quite that bad — tested, rather than rattled. On another day, perhaps against other opposition, this could have been another rare defeat for the All Blacks.
Ten issues for Hansen
Outside-half Beauden Barrett may have been the hero with two tries for New Zealand, but he was culpable for many errors throughout the game. New Zealand’s World Cup outside-half he most certainly is not. Surely Dan Carter — on water boy duties in Cardiff, as he was in London — or Aaron Cruden, or even Colin Slade, would be better options if they are fit and in form. Carter’s role was always going to be limited given his lack of club and international rugby in 2014, irrespective of his indifferent performance at BT Murrayfield against Scotland, while Slade has been magnificent when drafted in, as he was for the Barbarians earlier this month too. Barrett has done well as an impact player off the bench in the Rugby Championship in place of Cruden, and it is difficult at this stage to see him being the starting 10 for the All Blacks at the World Cup. If he can remain fit and get some form with the Crusaders next season, centurion Carter will be in the squad, along with Cruden. There is also a possibility that, despite his versatility, Barrett may not make the squad with Slade able to cover more positions across the backline. Wales were always going to target the 10-12 channel and Barrett looked frail defensively with Jamie Roberts charging at him every chance he could, while his kicking game rarely helped the All Blacks, with two kicks at goal going wide and a kick to touch going out on the full.