It’s that time of the year again, the June tours. After taking a break last year due to the small matter of something called a World Cup, the traditional mid-season Tests are back.
The northern hemisphere’s best, at the end of a long and arduous domestic season, take their battered and bruised bodies and head down south – only to get battered and bruised again by the likes of the All Blacks, Springboks and Wallabies.
This year’s Tests have thrown up three interesting match-ups; no doubt the most well-matched being the series between the Wallabies and England.
However, the other two series promise to be just as intriguing, if not more. The Boks take on Ireland in the battle of the greens, and possibly the two most rugby-mad nations in the world go head to head as Wales battle New Zealand.
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Wales and New Zealand, for all their similarities in terms of population size and craze for rugby, are quite different when it comes to success in the sport. With all due respect to Wales’ Six Nations records, their success against the southern hemisphere heavyweights, and their World Cup records, are meagre at best.
Neither Warren Gatland nor Steve Hansen were even born when Wales last beat New Zealand. And no one – living or dead – has ever witnessed a Welsh victory over New Zealand in New Zealand.
Which begs the question, does this Welsh class of 2016 have any chance in creating history? Surely this is their best opportunity, the All Blacks will be in their ‘transition’ period as they try to replace the rugby Gods that have joined mere mortals in retirement.
Surely this is the time for this generation of Welshmen to become immortals in their own right. Surely…
Not so fast. The Wales team that has just landed in New Zealand are but a pale shadow of the Wales of 2013, the team that would have almost certainly been a better bet to break the black duck. Since then Wales have been partly unlucky with injuries, and partly not good enough, lurching from tournament to tournament as nearly-men.
While they did pull off a few good performances here and there (Ireland in 2015 springs to mind) and certainly punched above their weight in the World Cup, the glory days of 2011-13 are well behind them.
Although the World Cup went better than many expected, it still ended in disappointment as their old hoodoo of not being able to beat southern teams haunted them again, bowing out of the tournament after defeats to Australia and South Africa.
Then came the Six Nations in 2016, the dawn of a new era for the north. If the World Cup was the dark, then this had to be the light for England, Wales, Ireland and France. Well, it wasn’t to be, at least not for the latter three.
Wales played out a tight draw with Ireland to start, then were almost surprised by the exciting Scots, then easily took out France (who just about everyone has easily taken out in the past four years), before remembering that they were playing a Test match at Twickenham 60 minutes into the game.
An inconsistent tournament at best for Wales. The potential is there, they just don’t seem to fulfil it.
Gatland announced his 35-man squad back on May 10. There were no uncapped players in that squad, but that has since changed as Cardiff Blues flanker Ellis Jenkins (Wales never have a shortage of Jenkins or Jones) has been called up to replace Dan Lydiate.
That happened due to Wales’ warm-up match against England this past Sunday at Twickenham. A game that was supposed to be vital Test match practice instead served to show just how much Wales will have to improve if they are going to challenge the World Champions.
Although they were without inspirational captain Sam Warburton, and the injured Leigh Halfpenny, and neither side had played any rugby for around ten weeks or so, Wales were expected to win against an England team that was shorn of their all-conquering Saracens players, including the influential Maro Itoje and George Kruis.
(Side note: Wallabies fans will not be pleased that replacements Courtney Lawes and Joe Launchbury played brilliantly in their stead, the latter being the man of the match).
Instead, Wales played like a bunch of men who had only just met outside the stadium, and while England were not too great either, they definitely looked like a team that was preparing for a series against a World Cup runner-up.
The scoreline read 27-13, but only because George Ford had one of the worst matches from the kicking tee ever. Had he taken all the points on offer, the score would have been 44-13, and that was a fairer indication of where things stood.
It started off well enough for Wales, with Rob Evans crashing over after a good spell of possession, much like Alex Corbisiero scored for the Lions in 2013. And those sorts of attacking runs from the forwards, targeting the weak shoulder of the defender, helped the Welsh win the battle of the gain line early on.
But slowly England started to crawl their way into the game, and they were helped by some really porous Welsh defence, making huge metres with nearly every run. Luther Burrell ran a great line off a lineout five metres out, and Dan Biggar had no chance in hell of stopping him, England scoring the first of five tries.
Wales still did create the odd chance, winger Hallam Amos had an impressive linebreak, but it ended up with scrum half Rhys Webb choosing to pass to an isolated Scott Baldwin when he had literally the entire team on the openside. Such errors in decision making, and indeed in handling skills too, plagued the Welsh for the second half, as three tries in the third quarter killed the game, a game that Wales somehow led at half-time.
Without Warburton, their breakdown presence was as good as non-existent. Their lineout disintegrated in the second half, and every time there was some unstructured play for England, the Welsh defence had no answer.
The All Blacks would be licking their lips at this, with Ben Smith and Damian McKenzie sure to have a field day counter-attacking them. Jamie Roberts also had a tough day in defence, with a hand-off by Lawes that set up Marland Yarde’s try happening in the same channel that a certain Kieran Read usually inhabits. Not promising.
However, there is still hope. Lydiate may be gone, but Warburton will almost definitely play a part in the series, and Wales are always a better team when he is on the pitch. Their outside backs still showed glimpses of their talent, with the aforementioned Amos, fullback Liam Williams and former Chiefs man Gareth Anscombe (who might face his former team on June 14) all having strong showings with the limited ball they got. Plus Roberts, George North and Jonathan Davies will strengthen their backline.
One senses that the forward pack will have to muscle up if they are to challenge New Zealand at the gainline, but they will surely do so unless they use one-off runners to run the ball, and they didn’t do that against England. It was more a matter of handling skills deserting them, which is something they absolutely cannot afford to do against the All Blacks.
New Zealand, for that matter, will be confident heading into their own new era, but will still have to ensure the new faces slot in seamlessly into the team. There will be some interesting match-ups on the tour, with Ardie Savea versus Warburton, Read versus Toby Faletau, Julian Savea versus George North and Brodie Retallick versus Alun Wyn Jones.
Also, we could have the two oddest kicking routines in the same match if Damian McKenzie is given the kicking tee for the All Blacks, with Welsh fly half Dan Biggar sure to bring the ‘Biggarena’ to New Zealand.
So to sum it up, does Wales have a chance? Yeah, but not really. Will that stop us neutrals from watching? No chance.