There are the same old songs in the stands at Cardiff, and on Saturdayit was the same old story on the pitch, too. Wales had reasons to believe that this game against New Zealand would be different to all the others they have played in the last seven decades: the All Blacks have lost four Tests already this year, had only just managed to scrape past Japan in Tokyo last week and were missing both their captain, Sam Cane, and the talismanic lock Brodie Retallick. Well, the game might have taken a fair few twists and turns but it finished up in exactly the same place as the last 32 between the teams. With New Zealand winning.
The final score, polished by a late flurry of three tries in the final few minutes, was 55-23, which equalled New Zealand’s record score against Wales set back in 2003. For long stretches the match was a lot closer than that makes it sound. In the periods either side of half-time the two teams traded tries and the match tipped crazily this way and that. Whenever Wales seemed to have hauled themselves back within reach, New Zealand would pull away again. Still, for those 40 minutes, the two teams fought on something close to level terms.
The trouble was what happened either side. New Zealand started by going 17-0 up inside the first 20 minutes after Codie Taylor scored twice from short range. Their hot start was altogether too much for a Welsh team who had not played together in three months. New Zealand’s defence was harder, their attack more finely honed. Both Taylor’s tries came from Welsh mistakes: one was made by the superb Ardie Savea, who stripped the ball off Ken Owens deep in New Zealand’s half and then released David Papali’i. The other was started by Aaron Smith, when he scragged Tomos Williams off the back of a Wales scrum.
At that point Wales were in danger of being utterly overwhelmed. It did not help that their plans were thrown out by the withdrawal of Leigh Halfpenny with a hamstring injury an hour before the start, which meant Wayne Pivac had to switch Gareth Anscombe from fly-half to full-back, bring Rhys Priestland in to replace him and put the uncapped Sam Costelow on to the bench.
It was Rio Dyer, the 22-year-old debutant, who finally kickstarted Wales’s attack, with a lovely looping run around the back of George North off the back of an attacking lineout.
All of a sudden the game burst into brilliant life. New Zealand pulled one back soon after when Richie Mo’unga, playing advantage, sent a cross-field kick over to the right wing, where Jordie Barrett leapt above Dyer to catch the ball and score in the corner. That was the way of it in the middle periods, just when Wales thought they had a grip on things, New Zealand would race away from them again.
A penalty by Anscombe was followed by a fine try by Smith, who slipped through one tackle and then stepped around another to score under the posts.
Justin Tipuric countered that when he gathered up Williams’s chip off the floor after it had bounced off Mo’unga, who was tussling with Priestland, and dived over for Wales’s second try. That made it 29-23 with 30 minutes to play.
Then, three minutes later, Smith scored again, his try made this time˜by Savea’s outrageous dummy on Nicky Smith. “He shouldn’t feel so bad about it,” Ian Foster said. “Ardie’s sucked me in on the training field a couple of times too.”
Smith’s second try sapped Wales. It was his 113th match, which makes him the All Black’s most-capped back, and he’s seldom played better. “He’ll be pleased to show off with a couple of meat pies,” Foster said. “His little legs had to run a long way for that first one.”
Wales’s final quarter was even worse than their first, New Zealand scoring three tries through Barrett, Savea and Samisoni Taukei’aho. “We wanted a fast start and we didn’t get that,” Pivac said. “I thought the boys did well to get back into the game, we started the second half as we hoped by scoring first and getting within seven. Unfortunately …” things fell apart.
He continued: “There were a lot of good individual performances, it’s just that as a group we needed to be more physical. There were moments in that game where we were in it, but needed to keep it in an arm wrestle for longer. The way we released the pressure right after scoring is something we need to look at.”
As for Foster, he had the quietly contented air of a coach whose team have come through a rough few months and are now on a run of five wins in five games. “The criticism’s never in the rear view mirror on this stage, is it? We took some pretty tough lessons early on, we weren’t ready, physically or mentally, for that Irish series. But there’s a few players we held back from that series who have come in and made a big difference to us. We’re still building. We’re not there yet.” But they’re back on their way.