BY NATHAN RHYS-GEORGE
In case you’ve been hiding under a rock over the weekend, you’ll have seen that in Auckland, Wales suffered a 39-21 defeat to New Zealand. Here are some things that can be taken from the match, just in case you needed help.
1) Aaron Cruden is New Zealand’s new man in the ten shirt
I thought Cruden was outstanding in this game. Given the final departure of Dan Carter from the All Black 10 jersey, the world was wondering if anyone would be able to put that stamp on the shirt again for a while.
Cruden stepped onto the on Saturday like a man possessed. I’ve seen him play well, but never quite this confidently. He was quick to use his creative kicking abilities and continued to do so throughout the match.
He would take the ball to the line and regularly draw defenders. If he can up his kicking percentage off the tee, he could become the standout choice as the All Black’s standoff for the foreseeable.
2) Wales still don’t have it at the breakdown – and New Zealand still do
The breakdown was a very sore point of Saturday’s loss if you’re Welsh. Once again Wales would find themselves lacking the intensity required to move the more athletic All Black bodies once play went to ground.
Once again Wales were left wanting with the ability to smash a player out of a breakdown, with it often taking more than one red shirt to move a black one.
I can’t blame everything simply on the ruck, however. The initial point of contact was not an effective area for Wales either. At most collisions the New Zealand ball carriers were either breaking tackles or at least taking a couple of players with them to ground. Any attempt at a contest is immediately broken as soon as Wales are put on the back foot at the contact area.
Dan Lydiate was sorely missed. This isn’t to say Moriarty didn’t do reasonably well with his day. There were a few times that he went to throw himself into contact but didn’t get the man down. You rarely get that from Lydiate. The ability to put the man down at the tackle line to allow the rest of the Wales pack to try and pinch the ball is an ability that Wales really could’ve done with. Even if the All Blacks are notoriously difficult to get down with just one man, if Wales hope to take anything out of this series they have to find a way to get it done.
3) Ken Owens has finally stood out as Wales’ #1 #2
Ken Owens was brilliant. While he wasn’t perfect at the line-out, all of his completed throws were right on the money, in the spot only his own jumper could’ve caught them.
He also got decent work done around the park, and was reasonable enough at scrum time. In a position where there has been no real standout player since Richard Hibbard lost his 2013 form, it finally seems as if there can be a clear choice for the role of starting hooker.
That is, until he plays poorly and Baldwin puts a show on. The argument will never subside, but for now, it seems as if it could be settled. Owens has certainly won this battle, but don’t say it’s impossible for Baldwin, or any other hooker in Wales, to win the war.
4) Wales have some BIG problems at the back of the field
George North has been ruled out of the tour due to a hamstring injury, which is a shame. He was finally showing the world what has been expected of him for the past couple of years.
Liam Williams did well, but you never know when he’s going to either get knocked out or sent off. Hallam Amos looked like a child on the first day of secondary school – and played as such against the comparative sixth-former Nadolo. Hallam Amos frustrates me – certainly good enough to be offered a shot but not quite good enough to take it. He is definitely an international rugby player, but maybe not for Wales, and maybe not against New Zealand. Maybe for somewhere like Egypt. Do they have a team? If not, make one. He’d steal the show. But maybe not Wales yet. I’m not saying never, but just not yet.
Of course, the argument would then arise, if not Amos, then who?
Very good point. Who is fit? Who is good enough? Does Gatland & Co look at not one, but two of their current sub-par wingers (because of course, North is injured, and Amos isn’t ready)? Do they shift Liam Williams across to allow Gareth Anscombe a starting berth in the 15 jersey? After his kick from the wing to break English hearts, do they push Lloyd Williams out wide? Does Shane Williams have his boots in the car? No matter what happens, look on Saturday for the All Blacks to exploit a lack of quality in the wider channels come Test 2 in Wellington.
5) New Zealand still has that extra gear
Losing Conrad Smith, Ma’a Nonu, Richie McCaw and Dan Carter in the space of one winter would cripple most international teams. Not the All Blacks, though. They still have that something extra that no team can compete with. They’re that bit fitter; they’re that bit more mentally tough.
Wales should have gone in at half time 13 points up. Biggar missed a penalty that should’ve been kickable in the first half, and that impressive goal-line stand by the All Blacks on the stroke of half-time meant that instead, it was just a 3 point gap, still with everything to play for.
Then, despite losing so many players this year, they bring incredible quality and strength in depth off the bench. No other side in the world has that much class sat on a bench.
The last 20 minutes of every game of international rugby belongs to the All Blacks. Even ones they aren’t playing in. They are that good.