AUCKLAND, NZ – With about 20 minutes to go in this game I was starting to think of ways to apologize to the readership for predicting a 20-point All Blacks victory. Up until that point Wales had ripped into the visitors and led by three points. But, as the Irish found out last year at Aviva Stadium, the English in June at Eden Park and the Wallabies last month at Suncorp Stadium, this All Blacks team seems to thrive like no other when the heat is on at the back end of a test match. While it doesn’t mask a valiant 60-minutes from the Welsh and a very sloppy display from themselves, the All Blacks turned on the blowtorch and closed out the game with ruthless efficiency.
All Blacks 34 (Beauden Barrett 2, Julian Savea, Jerome Kaino, Kieran Read tries, Barrett, con, pen Colin Slade 2 con) Wales 16 (Rhys Webb try, Leigh Halfpenny con, 3 pen)
Playing at Millennium Stadium with Wayne Barnes as the referee was always going to be a tough watch for New Zealanders, who would’ve all ironically noted a couple of forward pass calls in the first half. Before those however, the English whistle-blower had done just that, stamping his mark on the game early with a series of penalties to the home side. Leigh Halfpenny slotted a kickable one to give the home side a deserved lead after they had surprised the All Blacks with a positional game plan. It took a few goes for halfback Rhys Webb to find his range with his box kicks and it nearly turned pear-shaped as it gave Charles Piutau plenty of room to run them back. However, Wales persisted and it started to pay dividends as they gained plenty of first half turnovers. Beauden Barrett was having a bad start, fluffing his first shot at goal and making his combination with Sonny Bill Williams look like they’d only been introduced five minutes before kickoff. Williams was on the receiving end of some horrible hospital passes and some brutal attention from the Welsh forwards, in particular hooker Richard Hibbert. Barrett did land one penalty and the All Blacks looked to have muscled their way back into the game before halftime when they launched a raid into the Welsh 22. Some strong defense forced yet another SBW error to close out the half and leave the scores locked up at a surprising 3-all.
Wales would definitely been expecting the All Blacks to come out swinging in the second half and they didn’t have to wait long till the first punch was landed. A turnover inside their own 22 was unwisely attempted to be run out by Halfpenny, who found himself stripped of the ball by Kieran Read. Two quick passes later and it was in the hands of Julian Savea, who brushed off Dan Biggar to score in the corner. Barrett nailed the conversion and it seemed like the All Blacks were going to click into gear and dominate the rest of the half. However, no one told Taulupe Faletau and Webb, who took advantage of a big hole in the All Black defense. Faletau made the break and popped a perfectly timed offload to his halfback who dove over next to the posts, canceling out Savea’s try. Wales continued to pour on the pressure and were rewarded with another Halfpenny penalty soon after, leading the crowd to sense that something magical was about to happen and that 61 years of pain were finally about to be healed.
A backline reshuffle saw Piutau getting subbed for Colin Slade, who moved to first five, while Barrett dropped to fullback and Ben Smith went to the wing. Slade jumped straight into the action, claiming a bomb and setting up a Dane Coles break down the right hand side. Coles fed his captain, who came agonizingly short of a memorable try in his 100th game in charge, but quick ball found it’s way to Barrett who cross-kicked perfectly to Conrad Smith, who simply popped a pass for Jerome Kaino to fall over the line. But Wales still wouldn’t lie down, Halfpenny’s reliable boot restoring their lead shortly after the kickoff, 16-15.
Then someone (probably Richie McCaw) flicked a switch and the All Blacks proceeded to dash the afore-mentioned hopes and dreams of an entire nation. Wales were pillaged of any possession, kicks all of a sudden started to find open space and passes started going to hand. One sweeping move proved the bounce of the ball was literally going the All Blacks way when Barrett chipped over the Welsh defense to score the go-ahead try. Welsh hero Webb had been subbed for Mike Phillips, whose only contribution to the game was to have a kick charged down by Read, who regathered, score and put the result beyond doubt. But the All Blacks weren’t done, this time Slade showed he could cross-kick as well, finding Ben Smith who played the ball back for Barrett to score his second.
Any thoughts that this All Black team would be tired and over it gong into this match looked 100% right for the first hour of this game. Some of the handling was terrible, option-taking even worse and discipline almost non-existent. That’s not taking away anything from the Welsh forwards, who took the game to the All Blacks right from the kickoff. Hibbert was immense in open-field play and was ably supported by Sam Warburton, who seemed determined not to be outshone by his illustrious opposite. However Hibbert wasn’t perfect, the Welsh line out was at times a bit of a shambles and a couple of overthrows led to the All Blacks not only gaining possession, but perfect front foot ball to attack with. Rhys Webb made up for his early kick blunders and had a great game, real questions should be asked of the coaching staff’s decision to sub him for a very poor Phillips in the closing stages. Leigh Halfpenny was promising, but will be ruing deciding to run into Kieran Read and having the ball taken away for a try. The Welsh wingers may as well have not even been there for all the good they did, but their lack of involvement was more than made up for by a titanic amount of ball carrying by Jamie Roberts.
Don’t be fooled by Beauden Barrett’s two tries, this was a very wobbly performance from him and it says a lot that that double was scored while he was playing fullback. He can’t blame what was happening inside him, Aaron Smith had a blinder and, for the most part, the All Black forwards recycled the ball efficiently. While it seemed harsh at the time, Piutau’s subbing did effectively fix the problem that was causing the lack of cohesion in the backs, even if it was definitely not the winger’s fault. Dane Coles’ temper almost got the better of him again, but this time nothing too malicious happened and Barnes kept his cards in his pocket. Richie McCaw was outstanding in his record-setting match and will now command the All Blacks to disperse for the summer after yet another successful northern hemisphere tour.
Despite not being on the park for the final 20 minute beatdown, Charles Piutau did enough in his stint to ensure that the All Blacks weren’t facing a sizable deficit instead of being down by one. His tackle on a runaway Sam Warburton definitely saved a try that could have turned the balance of the game.
Try of the match: Barrett’s piece of individual brilliance might have World Rugby/the IRB reconsidering their top 5 tries of the year selection.
Idiot of the match: Note to Wayne Barnes – those of us watching on television are already provided with commentators, your constant chatter is both annoying and unnecessary. In short, shut up bro.
After the match World Rugby decided to save a bit of cash by having their annual awards ceremony right there on the pitch, since all the recipients were on the winning team. The All Blacks were awarded team of the year, Steve Hansen picked up coach of the year and a very deserved Brodie Retallick was recognized as international player of the year. I’ll have a full review of the All Black season including my own awards later on in the week.
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