New Zealand give Wales a lesson in game management
So the hankering for a Welsh victory against New Zealand goes on. Fifty-nine years, 25 matches, and on the evidence of Saturday's 33-10 defeat, little prospect of it ending anytime soon.
If Wales wanted to measure themselves against the best, they came up woefully short, the optimism of their pre-match rhetoric looking more like the rantings of the deluded.
There is no shame in losing to this All Blacks side, without doubt one of - if not the - greatest of all time.
"Wales have to get something out of this autumn. They made a lot of errors in the first half here and were put away. If they do the same against Australia then I think they will suffer the same result next week."
But if you raise expectations, as Wales did with their run to last year's World Cup semi-finals, the Grand Slam that followed, and their pre-match claims that they could topple the world champions, the sense of deflation is that much keener.
And yet, strange to relate, the last half-hour of this rousing affair not only revived Welsh spirits, but underlined the reasons for believing that things might just be different.
Suddenly the fire and flair of the Six Nations campaign resurfaced, New Zealand appeared mortal after all, and two very different tries allowed Wales to believe once again.
Just as well. Unless they re-produce the same level of performance for the entire 80 minutes against Australia next week, they face the prospect of opening the defence of their title against Ireland in early February on the back of seven straight defeats.
As an illustration of the 'boom and bust' nature of Welsh rugby, that could hardly be more graphic.
“Teams of lesser character would have thrown in the towel but we kept taking the game to them”
True, Wales endured a hefty dose of misfortune on Saturday. Losing your tight-head prop, even one as inexperienced as Aaron Jarvis, plus your main ball-carrying lock [Bradley Davies] and centre [Jamie Roberts] so early in the game, would disrupt any team, let alone one striving to restore confidence after two demoralising defeats.
The injuries, Wales coach Warren Gatland acknowledged, were "pretty unsettling". That All Blacks hooker Andrew Hore is likely to be cited for his swinging arm off the ball that ended the involvement of Davies is of little consolation after the event.
But if those wounds were not of their own making, the self-inflicted ones were just as damaging and pivotal to the outcome.
Decision-making, game intelligence, rugby nous, call it what you will. If physically Wales eventually showed they could match the All Blacks, once they had got to grips with the speed and intensity of the game, mentally the gap between the two sides was huge.
Perhaps overly keen to show off the 'all-in' line-out that belatedly brought them their first try after 57 minutes, Wales ignored the old adage of keeping the scoreboard ticking over when points were on offer.
Twice in the first 10 minutes, with the game score-less, and again when they were 16-0 down before half-time, they opted to kick penalties for touch instead of at goal.
The first time, Rhys Priestland found touch and Wales won the line-out, only to subsequently lose possession.
On the second and third occasions, the fly-half over-cooked his kicks to touch, even if he was adamant the latter had not gone dead. Unforgiveable, if you have decided to go the adventurous route.
Another poor decision, with the game still in its infancy, also had repercussions. Wales took a quick line-out when they were effectively down to 14 men, with Roberts still receiving treatment and clearly struggling. That was compounded by immediately kicking the ball back to the All Blacks. Moments later, with Roberts gingerly attempting to re-join the fray, he was involved in a mix-up with Liam Williams that handed New Zealand another penalty.
"Crazy," was how All Blacks coach Steve Hansen described Wales' high-risk approach afterwards, noting how England's failure to take their kicks against Australia last weekend had "probably cost them the game".
"Perhaps they were looking for vindication of their 'all-in' line-out," he said. "I don't know if the Welsh kickers would have kicked the goals but if you are thinking about points on the scoreboard, it makes the game a lot tougher mentally and it applies pressure."
Which is exactly what the All Blacks did instead. Without Dan Carter, the world's best in the decision-making department, they barely missed a beat, Aaron Cruden stepping into the maestro's shoes to orchestrate attacks at will, as well as - crucially - potting three penalties in the first 23 minutes.
As former Wales fly-half Jonathan Davies commented at the time: "There is nothing in this game, and yet nine points behind, that changes your mind-set."
At 33 points behind, with half an hour still left, there was a danger of something so hideous it might have scarred this young side's minds for good.
It would certainly have taken a brave man at that moment to suggest the All Blacks wouldn't score another point.
But Wales suddenly remembered themselves, and the spirit in adversity and skills that produced those two tries should do wonders for self-belief.
"Teams of lesser character would have thrown in the towel but we kept taking the game to them," said Gatland.
"We dominated possession and territory in the second half and put an outstanding All Blacks side under lots of pressure for long periods. The players will take a lot of confidence from that second half into next week's game with Australia."
Wales have not beaten the Wallabies since 2008, and lost the last seven meetings - the last five by eight points or less, the last two - this summer - by two points and one, respectively.
"The result shows you the gulf that still exists between the northern hemisphere and the southern hemisphere when the Grand Slam winners in the Six Nations are treated to such a beating."
Such fresh memories of missed opportunities presents another mental hurdle for Gatland's players to overcome this week. Individually though, there were heartening signs for the Welsh - and Lions - coach.
Centre Jonathan Davies showed his class on his return to the side, while Liam Williams enjoyed a promising second cap, announcing his arrival in Test rugby with a memorable first-half hit on All Blacks full-back Israel Dagg.
Fellow wing Alex Cuthbert, despite a couple of missed tackles, showed a renewed appetite for hard running and hard work, while number eight Toby Faletau was far more prominent with ball in hand as well as topping the tackle count.
Sam Warburton, some captaincy decisions aside, also rediscovered some of his snap, and Aaron Shingler added further bite after his early arrival, contributing - along with Matthew Rees, Warburton and Luke Charteris - to a much-improved line-out, where Wales only lost one of their 17 throws.
If some of the other statistics were less comforting - 21 turnovers conceded, 22 missed tackles - they are not unusual in teams confronting these ruthlessly efficient All Blacks.
Hansen was reluctant to be drawn afterwards on just how good his side have become. "That is for other people to judge if they are the greatest or whatever," he said.
"But what I like about this team is they want to play rugby and they work hard at what they do. Their goal is to get better every time they play, and if you have a goal like that, you give yourselves a chance."
Straight talking, and thinking straight. Wales would do well to learn from the best. And quickly.
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Comment number 253.Reggie Dunlop
27th November 2012 - 20:49
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