Don’t believe the hype, Wales were a distant second best
TAKE your pick: a valuable lesson courtesy of a Test against the best or an exercise in futility.
Warren Gatland is a big exponent of the former; the Wales boss believes that locking horns with southern hemisphere big guns is the route to improvement.
He would laud the benefits of going up against the magnificent skills of New Zealand at the weekend, claiming it to be perfect preparation for the intensity of Australia on Saturday.
But we know nothing now that we didn’t last week: the All Blacks can beat European sides without being anywhere near their best, the world champions have a liking for cheap shots, Wales have a chronic shortage of depth in certain positions, Richie McCaw is both a scoundrel and a joy to watch.
Illusionist Derren Brown wouldn’t have drawn many gasps if he had revealed those statements from a sealed envelope at the final whistle.
We knew in the build-up to the New Zealand Test that Wales would be attempting to avoid an autumn whitewash when they go up against Australia; we just had to sit through 80 minutes until it was confirmed.
Modern rugby players love to trot out the phrase ‘learning the lessons’ yet precious little information was garnered from the weekend.
None the less, the post-match interviews were a master class in sugar-coating a comprehensive defeat with talk of character and guts once they came to terms with the intensity of the Kiwis, who led 33-0 early in the second half.
“It would have been easy to throw in the towel but we started to take the game to the All Blacks,” said Gatland.
There were some reasons for cheer – most notable the performances of skipper Sam Warburton in the back row and Jonathan Davies in midfield – but please, let’s not dress this defeat up as something it wasn’t.
This was not a loss where Wales had the world champions on the run in the closing stages; this was a loss where Wales got some ball and territory late on thanks to New Zealand minds wondering off to Twickenham.
The performance was a step forward following debacles against Argentina and Samoa but that’s like saying the Frog Chorus is an improvement on Mull of Kintyre.
It was not a display that left you heading out onto the rain-lashed streets of Cardiff yelling bullishly, ‘bring on the Aussies’.
Because it was a game where the killer blow was applied before half an hour had been played.
When Liam Messam finished off a cracking score in the right hand corner after 25 minutes the All Blacks were out of sight with a 16-point advantage.
The world champions simply don’t give away such leads, certainly not to northern hemisphere countries.
The first half was a disaster for Wales.
Just 33 seconds had been played when Bradley Davies was hit by Andrew Hore’s swinging arm from behind and then, still from the first play, Aaron Jarvis’ leg was trapped at the sixth breakdown.
Two injury victims became three on 18 minutes when a blow to the hip forced Jamie Roberts to join them in the treatment room.
To suffer such disruption was unfortunate but Wales brought many of their first-half problems on themselves, most notably when turning down three shots at goal in order to kick to the corner – with the hapless Rhys Priestland missing touch twice.
It seemed to be that they were attempting to set up a situation where they could utilise their ‘all-in’ lineout – a 13-man move that yielded five points when the game was gone in the second half.
After the match New Zealand boss Steve Hansen summed up the thoughts of most of the 72,372 crowd when he referred to the decisions as “crazy”.
The former Wales coach continued: “Either they did not think we would score many points or they felt they could score often.
“I guess they could try to vindicate what they were trying to do with their all-in lineout which they will be happy with, I guess.
“We saw a game last week, England against Australia, where they did not take them either and in the end it probably cost them the game. Points on the board make the game a lot tougher mentally and it applies pressure.”
New Zealand certainly didn’t feel the heat for very long at the Millennium Stadium.
They led 23-0 at the break thanks to Messam’s try, another from prop Tony Woodcock from a slick lineout move and 13 points from the boot of Dan Carter’s deputy Aaron Cruden.
He stretched the lead with a fourth penalty early in the second half then converted a well-worked try for lock Luke Romano that made it 33-0 with half an hour left.
At that point the prospect of being both nilled and shipping a half-century looked likely.
But the All Blacks lost their shape amid a raft of replacements and Wales cashed in, first Scott Williams going over from the 13-man lineout and then Alex Cuthbert finishing smartly in the corner.
It meant that the second half finished 10-10 but that cannot be allowed to mask the problems that still exist ahead of the finale against the Wallabies.
Wales have now lost six games on the spin and must find a way of ended a seven-Test losing streak against Australia.
This week we will be told that Wales have found encouragement from the way that they finished strongly against the best side in the world, we will hear that if they start like that against the Aussies then they can end 2012 on a high. Yet most would still be going for gold if given a free bet on Saturday. A lot more than late pluckiness is required to prevent a disastrous whitewash.
Wales: L Halfpenny, A Cuthbert, J Davies, J Roberts (S Williams 18), L Williams, R Priestland (J Hook 67), M Phillips (T Knoyle 54), P James (G Jenkins 54), M Rees (K Owens 54), A Jarvis (S Andrews 2), B Davies (A Shingler 2), L Charteris, R Jones (J Tipuric 49), S Warburton (captain), T Faletau.
Scorers: tries – S Williams, A Cuthbert
New Zealand: I Dagg, C Jane, C Smith, M Nonu, J Savea (B Smith 75), A Cruden (B Barrett 68), A Smith (P Weepu 50), T Woodcock (W Crockett 50), A Hore (D Coles 54), O Franks (Faumuina 60), L Romano, S Whitelock, L Messam (V Vito 70), R McCaw (captain), K Read.
Scorers: tries – L Messam, T Woodcock, L Romano, ; conversions – A Cruden (3) ; penalties – A Cruden (4)
Referee: Craig Joubert (South Africa)
Star man: Sam Warburton