The Wales squad in Carisbrook to take on New Zealand this weekend are once again a team arriving in the southern hemisphere underachieving, and under a something of a cloud.
Wales have been the slowest of the home nations to recover from the fall out caused by last year’s Lion’s tour (possibly a side affect from having such a large number of key men in the test squads), and despite having a team bristling with talent Wales’ last 18 months have been decidedly underwhelming, culminating in series of meek performances.
Things have not got any brighter for Wales this summer either with seven of their big names ruled out of their tour through a mixture a of injury and need for rest. And what we are left with is somewhat of a second tier, or ‘developmental’ Welsh team turning up to face the world’s best.
It’s true they recently came close to beating world champions South Africa in Cardiff last week but the reality is that Wales conceded 34 points against a team that had been playing together for under a week.
Shaun Edwards has maintained that this is a test series, and one that Wales are out to win. Indeed Wales only narrowly lost their last encounter and there would be little point in going to New Zealand if the objective was to lose the two matches. But with the squad Wales have taken the realistic objective can’t be all out victory but rather to secure some concrete progress.
Warren Gatland’s pre-World Cup catchword has been ‘physicality’ and Wales know they need to match the physicality of the top southern hemisphere teams if they want to compete at next year’s tournament.
And because of this Wales’ physicality of late has no doubt improved; the front row has been one of the strongest in the northern hemisphere both in the scrum and around the park, Mike Philips is the world’s best bludgeoning scrum-half and they have been making good use of 6”4 and 17st Jamie Roberts at first receiver.
But Wales, for all their physicality, are still best at producing twinkle-toed magicians of the Barry John, Phil Bennet, Shane Williams and James Hook variety and currently find themselves short of a world class ‘enforcer’. Wales are lacking any player with the physicality and the mean streak of a Schalk Burger, a Bakkies Botha, a Richie McCaw, or a Rocky Elsom.
Ryan Jones, though a capable leader, has lost much of his dynamism and even Wales’ most promising prospect, lock Bradley Davies, was a twinkle-toed fly-half in his youth. With New Zealand’s winter already in full swing, the conditions are already suggesting that Wales will need to get into their stride physically sooner rather than later.
Wales have a tendency to try and play and pass their way out of trouble, racking up an impressive 904 passes in their Six Nations campaign, nearly 300 more than Champions France, but these tactics often lead to mistakes and as Ireland proved last Saturday, you cannot afford mistakes against New Zealand.
Granted Ireland made some pretty major mistakes; kneeing Richie McCaw (who I have no doubt was doing something illegal in the ruck) in the head, twice, in front of the referee, holding onto a potential try-scorer without the ball and going down to 13 men are pretty high on anyone’s list of faux pas.
But throughout the game small mistakes were also constantly punished; poor line-outs were aggressively contested, an unsecured ruck was met by two or three All Blacks hitting the breakdown at full pelt and forwards out of position in the defence had rings run around them.
All Black weaknesses?
The All Blacks are experts at putting teams off of their game, man-handling the opponents into frustration, pushing the gain line backwards and forcing the opposition defence to retreat and reform.
At a base level any team with Richie McCaw and Dan Carter (who has now scored 1011 points for New Zealand) will have point scoring ability, but this All Black side is as dangerous as we have seen for some time. Israel Dagg is currently New Zealand’s golden boy, and he was the shining light of an impressive back-three against Ireland, and has undoubtedly secured himself the All Black 15 shirt ahead of Mils Muliaina.
George Whitlock and Jimmy Cowan scored two tries apiece highlighting the now famous All Black commitment to supporting the runner. But even they were eclipsed by the performance of Kieran Read whose prodigious fitness proved to be more than just propaganda after covering the length of the field several times over and still finding enough energy to force his way through four Irish defenders to cross the try line.
However, New Zealand were sublime at times, but they were far from infallible and Tony Buckley, Mick O’Driscoll, and Andrew Trimble all impressed for Ireland, and were easily able to match the All Black physicality in the loose.
Buckley and O’Driscoll were indomitable when it came to clearing out and securing the ball, often single-handedly providing a platform for Ireland to play from, and for this alone should be highlighted. They allowed Ireland to dominate the gain line, and provided a lesson in exactly what Wales will need to do if they have any hope of winning.
It can be forgotten, though, that Ireland scored four tries (or five counting Andrew Trimble’s perfectly legitimate attempt), against New Zealand – a national record. Arguably these tries came as a result of New Zealand easing off the pressure after the game was already well won, but still an under strength, 14-man Ireland squad were able to breach the All Black try line multiple times.
Wales have failed to score a single try against New Zealand in their last two meetings but it seems now that they stand as good a chance as ever to break this deadlock, if they are only able to hold their end up.
This is of course far easier said than done. If, though, Wales are able to maintain the presence of mind to absorb the All Black pressure without building frustration, give away little defensively and are stay calm and clinical in attack they may be in with a chance, albeit a slim one as Wales have traditionally thrived in loose and open play and, against Ireland, New Zealand were undoubtedly loose and open.
Unfortunately though it is their composure and mind set that have been at the root Wales’ recent underachieving. The new faces may well inject some much needed vitality into the squad but the core of the Wales setup remains the same and it seems unlikely that Wales’s mindset will be improved by the absence of many so many of their big names.
Even with Wales functioning at full capacity, a win against the All Blacks on Saturday would be a hard ask and it is hard to escape the fact that Wales are taking an understrength squad, including eight players with under 5 caps, to take on the world’s best on their home soil.
But though a historic victory may seem unlikely, Welsh fans should at least be encouraged by the fact that two tests against the All Blacks should, at the very least, lay the foundations for some long overdue Welsh progress.