The same old story
June 18, 2010
Conrad Smith celebrates another win over Wales © Getty Images
Predictability is not a trait widely admired in sports. Wales in the past have set the benchmark for wild deviations from the norm, and did so again during the Six Nations, but one thing remains constant in their world: they just can't beat the All Blacks.
If Test matches were 20 minutes long Warren Gatland's men could have edged Saturday's encounter at Carisbrook. The opening minutes, as they did against South Africa two weeks ago, showed a team boasting a new-found physicality and ruthless edge, with Stephen Jones and Leigh Halfpenny taking early chances with the boot.
Unfortunately, the boot is where it began and ended. Once the champagne merchants of the north, Wales have lost their way in attack and looked stilted thanks to the injury-enforced absences of James Hook and Shane Williams. They have failed to score a try against New Zealand in 240 minutes of rugby and showed little progress on that front.
Scrum-half Jimmy Cowan was pivotal to the home side's clinical overhauling of the scoreboard in the closing stages of the first-half, upping the pace with a series of quick taps. Wales dominated possession but didn't stretch the opposition, they were unable to find the extra gear commanded by Cowan and later Dan Carter.
Carter's second-half performance was one of majesty and, with a little help from a tantrum by coach Graham Henry at the break, he hauled his side back to their expected performance levels. While Wales did not provide the leg-up that Jamie Heaslip did in Irish colours last weekend, their lethargy after the break was an open invitation to the All Blacks to take them on from deep.
The athleticism of the home side was not matched by any player in red and despite their boasts to the contrary, Wales were shown to be lacking both desire and staying power in the closing stages. Richard Kahui's try was a horror-show for the tourists, and defence coach Shaun Edwards will shout himself hoarse when that particular video nasty is presented in training this week.
It's necessary to point out the gaps in Wales' selection armoury and it was not only the craft and guile of Hook and Williams that was sorely missed. Any side shorn of Gethin Jenkins is missing a major cog and while Paul James went well in the scrum, he doesn't offer the tireless, precise work of Jenkins both in defence and as a support runner.
Both the creativity of Martyn Williams and the straightforward pace and power of Sam Warburton would have been welcomed in stemming the flow of quick All Blacks ball and while Dragons openside Gavin Thomas talked a good game about taking his chance prior to the World Cup, he made little impact at the breakdown and was a non-existent presence in support.
On the other side of the coin, the All Blacks showed that their clinical streak is a mile wide. The second-half, seemingly out of nowhere, began with a palpable drop in intensity from Wales and no second invitation was required. South Africa remain the champions of rugby's heavyweight division but the All Blacks are slowly putting together a little strength-in-depth and should be firing come the start of the Tri-Nations.
Carter's return to form was only a matter of time following a poor Super 14 by his usually exemplary standards and his exuberance will rub off on a backline that looks increasingly sharp. They have another shot at Wales next week and given their Carisbrook show there could be another long evening in store for the visitors.
Gatland has taken a competitive squad in a bid to iron out a few details for their World Cup tilt and his introduction of Scarlets flanker Rob McCusker may point to a reshuffle. Jones had another mixed game with the boot and also picked up a hand injury so Dan Biggar could force his way into contention while Thomas may have had his bite at the cherry.
There is nowhere to hide for this beleaguered squad, it's time to shape up or ship out.
Huw Baines is the Assistant Editor of ESPNscrum.