The June Internationals are finally here, and after a more protracted buildup than normal, they’ve delivered on the hype and promise. And how. Three different, but thrilling matches with so many talking points.
Some great attacking play, some not-so-great attacking play, brilliant tries (with not one being off a rolling maul by my count), some great defence, red cards, yellow cards, disallowed tries, this weekend had everything. So let’s get straight to it.
(My apologies in advance to Pumas and Azzurri fans – some timings are more conducive than others to viewers.)
More of the wash-up from Wallabies vs England
» SPIRO: Can the Wallabies win at Melbourne?
» Moore can take a leaf out of Smith’s book
» Five talking points
» Who should replace David Pocock?
» Match report: Eddie’s England too good
» DIY player ratings
» Roar Forum – what changes should the Wallabies make?
» Watch the full highlights
Same old, same old for Wales
In the buildup to Wales’ first Test match at Eden Park since the 2011 World Cup, the various hoodoos and streaks were mentioned ad nauseam (if you still need reminding, Wales have not beaten New Zealand in 63 years), and really no one expected Wales to set that record straight.
Most expected an All Black victory by around 15 to 20 points. And that is what they got. But not before Wales gave their customary good account of themselves, teasing their fans with thoughts of a prospective win, before ultimately succumbing to better opponents. Talk about deja vu.
A kicking battle…
The match began with a series of All Black attacks that took them into the 22, and ended with Aaron Cruden jabbing a grubber into the in-goal which Liam Williams defused. The Welsh fullback got Kieran Read’s hip in the face for his troubles, but that kick was to be a sign of things to come in the game.
Wales used numerous up-and-unders to try and gain territory, and it worked in some ways. The first try to the magnificent Toby Faletau came from a move that began after an up-and-under from Dan Biggar. However unlike the All Blacks, when in the red zone they kept faith in their backs and put it through the hands for the No.8 to score.
But for every kick that goes your way, there could be one that backfires, and Waisake Naholo’s try on 18 minutes came from a blistering Ben Smith counterattack after plucking a kick out of the air on his own 22. Julian Savea’s try before that came from a cross kick from Cruden.
The All Blacks are known to be a team that relies on kicking as a tactical and attacking weapon, but teams playing them must also remember that they thrive on wayward kicks, or ones that bounces the wrong way.
…But not a boring match
Despite their reliance on the kick, Wales did produce enough moments to disprove the notion that this was going to be a one-sided match where they would just roll over. Especially in the first half, they really took the game to New Zealand, looking to play at a frenetic pace, and attack whenever possible.
Once Wales even took a quick throw from inside the 22 and flung the ball wide, with Jamie Roberts and Faletau taking them near the All Black 22, only for Aaron Smith to intercept Jonathan Davies’ pass.
New Zealand too had their customary glamour plays, with the aforementioned Naholo try in the first half, and another brilliant charge from a stolen Welsh lineout on their own 22 resulting in a penalty that Aaron Cruden missed.
The back three for both teams were in the thick of things for much of the game. Hallam Amos seemed he was in for a long night against Naholo, but managed to hold his own before Naholo’s wing was switched. He even made a few good attacks.
On the opposite wing, George North looked to power his way past the bus of Julian Savea, and was successful a few times, but lost the battle against the touchline on more than one occasion. Liam Williams had a fantastic game, being involved in both Welsh tries.
For the All Blacks, Ben Smith started off with a fumbled catch, but was increasingly his normal, consistent assured self at the back, and also contributed in attack.
Naholo scored two tries, bombed another and was also never far away from the action. His tendency to come infield at times adds more variety to the All Black attack.
And considering the contrasting performance of Julian Savea, one cannot help but wonder whether Steve Hansen may consider dropping the bus. Despite scoring one try, Savea was constantly found out on defence, and his substitution for Beauden Barrett was a game changer. Speaking of which…
Rugby is an 80 minute game
Wales went into half time with a 3-point lead, and kept that lead till the hour mark. They had played well enough to deserve their lead until that point, but nearly everyone expected them to fade away in the second half as the All Blacks got their replacements on. And sure enough, that is exactly what happened.
Wales hardly made any forays into the All Black 22 from 50 minutes or so, whereas in this period the All Blacks consistently turned up the pressure, attacking with complete control of the ball.
No doubt the Kiwi replacements had a part to play in this, especially Beauden Barrett, whose arrival had the double effect of adding a measure of attacking verve, and defensive stability as Ben Smith took the place of the suspect Julian Savea.
New Zealand never looked like losing once they took the lead, and to be frank it seemed a matter of when and not if they would take the lead.
A battle of the breakdown
A huge reason why the All Blacks were able to play with so much ball and gain so many metres in the second half was because of their work in nullifying Sam Warburton. With the retirement of Richie McCaw, this was always going to be an area of interest, and just how well Sam Cane would step up was always going to be scrutinised.
Sure enough, the breakdown was as fiercely contested as it could be, and especially in the first half, Wales enjoyed a fair bit of success in that area, making pilfers and slowing the All Black ball.
Warburton and Faletau were especially effective in that area, but being the champion team that they are, the All Blacks shifted their focus in the second half, and set about cleaning out Warburton from the game. I don’t remember him making a single turnover in the second half.
Plus with a debutant in Ellis Jenkins being the only replacement on the subs bench, once this battle was lost, the match was all but lost for Wales.
There are four moments that I would like to highlight here that I believe had a huge bearing on the outcome.
First up, at the end of the first half, with Wales leading by 3 points, they were given a 5-metre scrum. The shove from the pack was good, and Jonathan Davies took the ball up to about a metre from the line.
More importantly, half back Rhys Webb got to the ball quickly and with the All Blacks defence seeking reinforcements, the opportunity was there for Webb to either snipe himself, or just pop it up to one of the Welsh forwards who was coming off his shoulder.
Instead he chose to pass wide of the ruck to Ross Moriarty who was easily stopped by the cover defence. The opportunity was lost with the move, and the half, ending with Amos putting a foot in touch.
What a difference an eight (or ten) point lead into half time would have made.
As I mentioned before, the Welsh rarely attacked in the second half, but their last attack of note was a crucial one.
The score was 18-18 on around 50 minutes, and Dan Biggar missed a shot at goal. From the ensuing dropout, George North made a break into the 22, and was tackled by Beauden Barrett, in what was a crucial moment in itself.
What I want to highlight here is the following phase. With the All Black defence in disarray, Wales swung it out wide and the ball reached Jonathan Davies. At this point, he had an incredible 4 on 1 outside him, with only Ben Smith covering for four players, one of which was onrushing fullback Liam Williams.
As we can see here, Davies just needed to put it through to Williams, who just needed to straighten the attack to nullify the drift defence, and Wales would have been in. Instead, Davies floated a looping pass out wide to Amos who was hugging the touchline. The winger had to break stride to catch the ball, and that gave New Zealand an extra moment to get sufficient cover to stop the attack. Opportunity lost.
Biggar scored a penalty from the same attack, but a 25-18 lead would have been much different that a 21-18 one. Would the All Blacks have managed to blow such a chance? Surely not.
And the difference between going for a try and going for goal was just underlined even more when New Zealand did score their try. However, before I get to that crucial moment, there’s one last moment the Welsh would go on to rue that I want to emphasise.
I did mention it before that New Zealand stole a Welsh lineout and went on a counter attack that led to a missed Cruden penalty, but just how costly would that missed lineout be is something I didn’t mention.
For one, it was the last real attacking position the Welsh got themselves in before the New Zealand scores. Secondly, that penalty, and the missed touch that followed after that, led to the waves of attack that ended in Naholo’s game winning try.
The Welsh lineout suffered when Alun Wyn Jones (who was having a fantastic 100th Test) was taken off for a head knock early in the second half. Despite coming on ten minutes later, the lineout never really recovered, and Jones too had less of an impact (perhaps due to the injury, who knows). Once that set piece was gone, Wales really had no chance.
But still, the scoreboard talks. And New Zealand had to get ahead on it after all. Which is exactly what they did, but not before showing just why they are the champion team that they are. With the All Blacks getting closer and closer to the line, the Welsh somehow heroically weathered the storm and kept them at bay.
Their increasing desperation saw them infringe though, and Alun Wyn Jones conceded a silly penalty for putting his hands in the ruck. Now this was easily kickable for Cruden, who had not had the best of nights from the tee (although he was pretty good in general play). But Aaron Smith and Kieran Read showed the difference in mentality between New Zealand and Wales and Smith took the tap when Wales were seemingly not expecting it.
Plus, they got Naholo in from his wing and made him run straight at Dan Biggar. Biggar had conceded a try at Twickenham to a rampaging Luther Burrell, and there was no chance he would have stopped the big Fijian. Naholo scored, New Zealand got seven when other teams would have thought of getting three and New Zealand never looked back.
I get the feeling that opposition captains often are of the opinion that every point matters against the All Blacks and that’s why they try and take the three points when on offer.
Now of course there are moments when you should go for goal, even the All Blacks had taken the shot for the preceding penalty (which Cruden missed) but there are times when you just have to back yourself and attack the All Blacks.
It is a bit of a damned if you do, damned if you don’t situation – if Biggar hadn’t taken the penalty for 21-18 and then Wales had failed to score from the lineout, they would have been considerably dejected.
But it’s that belief in the attack, and more importantly, that know-how of when to tap, when to go for the lineout and when to go for goal that separates New Zealand from the rest.
New Zealand now have one hand on the series, but they aren’t without their issues. Steve Hansen would be happy with the result and the fact that the team didn’t look short of inspiration even without the old heads of McCaw and Carter.
The Sky Sports commentary team were repeatedly mentioning how the presence of McCaw and company would count in such a situation (when the All Blacks were 21-18 down) but that didn’t make a difference at all. Steve Hansen has mentioned that they still have a leadership group, and this new ‘core’ of players is growing very nicely into the mould of the old guard.
Aaron Smith, Ben Smith, Kieran Read, Brodie Retallick and Sam Whitelock (when he’s playing) are going to be mainstays in this side for many a year, and don’t be surprised if they emulate the players who just left in making a century of Tests.
Hansen would also be happy with Cruden I think, as the fly half had a decent outing, looking solid in attack and defence. However, Beauden Barrett’s introduction changed the game undoubtedly, and whether he sticks with him on the bench, or starts him at 15 with Smith on the wing instead of Savea, is another thing to look at.
I feel Hansen is generally quite favourable towards his trusted players, and he might not drop Savea for the second Test, but the Hurricanes winger will have to play better, especially if the Welsh target his wing again, if he wants to keep his place for the third Test.
The centre combination seems good enough to persist with, while Sam Cane will also get the nod for one more Test in all probability, although Ardie Savea had a positive impact of the bench.
All in all, a few things to consider for Hansen, but he’ll be more scrutinising in the second Test, when the combinations that seemed rusty in the first half (the All Blacks made an uncharacteristic amount of errors, especially dropped balls) should be less so.
For Wales, they have to lick their wounds and head to Hamilton to play a midweek fixture against the Chiefs. It will be a good opportunity for a few squad players to make a push for selection, and I doubt too many of the players who started on Saturday will take any part in the match.
Wales’ captain Sam Warburton said that they really gave a good go but it wasn’t enough, and clearly it wasn’t. For them to repeat such a performance will be a tough ask, as their battered and bruised bodies will be more tired than they were before the first Test.
Warren Gatland will be pleased that their performance was better than the dross at Twickenham, but ultimately that was the least that was expected of them. Kieran Read admitted as much that the game went exactly as they had thought – nobody in the All Black camp expected Wales to be that poor as against England.
So now what for Wales? They just need to hope they can do the same over in Wellington, this time being a bit better in defence and a little more clinical in attack, with a better set piece. And they still might lose by 10. That’s the enormity of the challenge facing them.
But still, we’ll be expecting an interesting game over at the Cake Tin. If Wales can just turn up (and they probably will) we’ll have enough talking points for another week. But they’ll still probably lose.