All Blacks close in on historic slam
Graham Jenkins reports from Cardiff
November 22, 2008
Referee Jonathan Kaplan urges Wales captain Ryan Jones to lead his side away in the heat of the moment ahead of kick off at the Millennium Stadium © Getty Images
New Zealand are within reach of an historic Grand Slam tour after strangling the life out of Wales in pulsating encounter at the Millennium Stadium.
The record books will show a 29-9 victory for the tourists but the score is only part of the story as the All Blacks moved to within one victory of their third unbeaten tour of the northern hemisphere with a battling display to see off a brave Welsh side.
Wales' magnificent stadium played host to a bruising and intense Test match that lived up to the billing and Wales, although unable to end a 55-year drought against the All Blacks, made sure the tourists had to produce their best performance of 2008 to keep their dream alive.
The Millennium Stadium masses were in full voice well before kick off in this clash between the Six and Tri Nations champions and the excitement and anticipation reached fever pitch as the sides entered the arena. Richie McCaw led in the All Blacks and they soon hunkered down in a huddle to await the arrival of the home team.
The special effects-laden entrance of the home side saw bursts of flame explode into life around the pitch, taking the chill out the air of the press box, before dry ice and a red glow filled the tunnel. Then, walking with purpose, the Welsh team emerged to a rapturous welcome.
Wales had promised a fierce challenge to the All Blacks - little did we know it would come before the first whistle.
It is destined to become known as the 'stand-off' - its originality as a response to the haka will be debated but there was no doubt it added to the tension of this clash and set fans and journalists alike into a frenzy.
Ryan Jones' men lined up to face the All Blacks' world-famous Kapa O Pango and the crowd did their best to sound out there own in response - but it was the actions of the resolute Welsh, or lack of them perhaps, that will live on long into the night around Cardiff and the rugby world.
A banner high above the pitch at the Millennium Stadium reads 'Protect This House' - and by standing their ground Wales underlined their intent to do just that.
At the conclusion of the haka they refused to break ranks and prepare for kick off in what later emerged as a pre-meditated plan to send a message to their visitors. "This is our stadium, our pitch, these are our fans," explained Jones following the game, "and we were not going to give ground."
Taking their cue from their heroes, the fans responded with another rousing rendition of Bread of Heaven and you were suddenly left asking yourself whether you were the only one not in on this plan?
Maybe a little thrown by their hosts' reluctance to break and ready themselves for kick off, the All Blacks chose to hold their ground too, opting instead to shoot daggers across the half-way line that separated them.
We've seen France on this very ground front up to the haka, Ireland too have advanced towards it but never before has such an impact been made as this. Wales also have a historywhen it comes to the haka - in Cardiff two years ago Welsh officials insisted the haka was performed before the national anthems which led to the All Blacks performing it in their changing room.
Referee Jonathan Kaplan desperately urged the players to break and begin the game with a futile flapping of his hands - he approached first McCaw and then Jones as if a referee of a prize fight, ordering the contenders 'to go to your corners and prepare to the fight'.
Eventually, after an age or maybe just over a minute, Kaplan had to manhandle All Blacks from their formation and the Welsh players followed. They had made their statement of intent, scored a minor victory, now there was the added pressure of living up to it.
And they did - for the majority of the game. To not have produced a performance worthy of such pre-match drama would have been criminal and made Wales something of a laughing stock. But after just a few moments of the match you were left in no doubt as to there claims.
Wales edged ahead courtesy of the boot of Stephen Jones but the ever influential Dan Carter kept the All Blacks in touch in a try-less first half. Pretty much even in terms of territory and possession the sides headed to the break with the hosts 9-6 ahead.
Some of the crowd were dreaming of a famous win but those in the press box only had to recall how New Zealand have turned the screw in the second half of all their matches on this current tour.
And they did once again.
Carter levelled things up within two minutes and Wales had to weather a storm soon after. Obviously fired up by a half-time talk from their coaching team the All Blacks bombarded the Welsh line but some sterling defence kept them at bay. A lengthy visit to the Television Match Official only added to the tension that was dripping off the rafters but when no try was awarded the crowd erupted with renewed hope.
But the All Blacks would not be denied. Ma'a Nonu crossed for a deserved try with Wales down by two players due to injury and Carter's conversion edged them further ahead.
He eased the nerves of the small contingent of New Zealand fans with another penalty soon after and when replacement fly-half James Hook failed with an attempt to reduce the arrears you feared it may be at least a couple more years before the Welsh break the hoodoo.
Carter's fifth penalty followed a little later to all but secure the win and there was still time for a score-flattering try from Jerome Kaino.
A deflated Wales coaching team faced the press after the game with Warren Gatland citing the intensity and his side's failure to match the All Blacks for 80 minutes.
"The only way we're going to get better is by playing the best," he said. "We brought the best out of the All Blacks. They are clearly the best side in the world and we made them play like that."
Wales were closer to de-railing the All Blacks' tour than the eventual 20-point deficit suggests - and they will be best served remembering that with the Wallabies awaiting them next weekend. But in the end the class of the All Blacks won out and the smiles on their faces come the final whistle made it clear that they were relieved to have escaped victorious from such a stern test..
The All Blacks await the arrival of the Welsh team at the Millennium Stadium © Getty Images
Fresh from a lap of honour in front of an appreciative crowd, Graham Henry heaped praise on his side. "That was the best half of rugby we have played all year," he declared, "the guys showed a lot of heart and character." This last point may be a little hard to believe going by the almost robotic way they have risen to each challenge laid before them this month.
And what of the pre-match stand-off? "I wasn't sure if we were ever going to get started," joked skipper Richie McCaw who saw it as a 'good bit of sportsmanship'.
Henry was almost equal in his praise of a Wales side that impressed him and contains according to him some outstanding talent. Asked how close Wales are to recording another win against one of the southern hemisphere giants he said, "Wait 'til next week."
By tipping Gatland's side to end their autumn series with a win over the Wallabies next weekend Henry may just have been rubbing salt into the wounds of a sporting-mad country that had suffered earlier in the day in the rugby league World Cup final at the hands of their Kiwi rivals.
All that stands between New Zealand and their third Grand Slam tour, following 1978 and 2005, is England at Twickenham. Allowing himself to now be drawn on the matter, Henry admitted that with just one game to go it is a 'reality'.
Following back-to-back defeats at the hands of Australia and South Africa, England manager Martin Johnson will be praying that reality doesn't bite next weekend.
Concussion, relegation and the mother of all surprises - it's the Monday Maul.