Predictable Wales lack pulling power
June 15, 2010
Will Wales be celebrating a rare success in New Zealand this weekend? © Getty Images
Back in 1954 - an era to which one instinctively harks back whenever a Wales v New Zealand match appears on the horizon - the New Zealand Rugby Union invited Wales, who had beaten them at Cardiff in December 1953, to pay a visit.
The International Board, in pursuit of its then prime objective of ensuring that the game never became too attractive to The Wrong Sort of People, vetoed the idea, arguing that decennial visits by the Lions were as much European rugby as New Zealanders should be expected to watch.
New Zealand v Wales might easily have been the oldest of the fixtures in which southern hemisphere nations host individual unions from the north. It is, instead, almost the least frequent.
Saturday's meeting in Dunedin will be the sixth time the All Blacks have hosted Wales. Only Scotland v South Africa (which as it happens is the oldest) of the 15 fixtures in which Tri-Nations host formerly-Five Nations, played five times, has been less frequent. The All Blacks have hosted France 23 times, England 12, Scotland 10 (although not since 2000) and Ireland 9.
It is, like much about New Zealand-Wales relations, a sobering reflection on Wales's pulling power, itself a consequence of how badly they have done on those previous visits. The 1969 team, containing many of the giants of the coming decade, went down by margins that under modern scoring values would have been 27-0 and 39-12. In 1988 the margins, in modern equivalents, were 62-3 and 62-9. At least both of those teams could in part blame the Welsh Rugby Union's acceptance of suicidal itineraries, and there was genuine shock at the results.
By 2003 the 55-3 shellacking in a match at Hamilton only likely to be remembered for Daniel Carter's international debut produced a shrug of the shoulders and some relief that it had not been far worse.
That Wales will visit Hamilton against next week is also a reflection of status. This is not to decry the NZRU's admirable policy of taking matches outside the traditional international venues, but it is worth noting that neither France nor England has ever been entertained anywhere off the traditional circuit formed by Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch and Dunedin.
The bar, it might be argued, has been set pretty low for Warren Gatland's team over the next two weekends. Go down by less than 20 points on either occasion and there will be a case for arguing that it is the best Welsh performance in New Zealand.
Whether they can manage even that is probably rather doubtful. Gatland will undoubtedly talk an excellent game, quite possibly landing the odd blow on the less verbally dextrous Graham Henry (a pity that the All Blacks can't hand over press relations to Wayne Smith, the only one of their trio who has ever appeared to understand that dealing with journalists is part of the job). Gatland, though, has every reason to be worried.
The most recent evidence on the state of Wales came from the Servicing the WRU Overdraft Test against South Africa earlier this month. This did have some redeeming features. At least Wales did not for once spot the opposition 15 points before they started playing, although it was deflating to be on the happy end of that equation and still lose. Tom Prydie clearly represents something more than Gatland's urge to rewrite the record books while the Blues duo of Bradley Davies and Sam Warburton should also be around for much of the coming decade. James Hook continued to show a capacity for making something - in particular space - from nothing.
But the positives were far outweighed by a litany of deficiencies, whose most depressing aspect was their predictability. Even allowing for the problems always set by having Victor Matfield among the opposition, the line-out was sinful. The restarts were scarcely any better, there was a surfeit of ill-directed kicking from the hand and Welsh hands were far too often careless.
These are not the product of over-ambition, but the aspects of the game that should be ingrained in practice - they are the basics. And Wales will need to get the basics right because there will be little scope for over-ambition against the All Blacks.
With neither Hook nor Shane Williams making the trip it is hard to see where invention, deception or simple deviation from straight lines will be found among the Welsh back division. While it is now a matter for debate whether Warburton or Martyn Williams should be the first choice open side, the All Blacks are probably the last opposition against whom you'd wish to do without either. Nor is the absence of Gethin Jenkins going to aid the all-round Welsh game.
On the bright side, it seems possible that this may not yet be a vintage All Black crop. New Zealanders may not be too disappointed by this, hoping that the Springboks have inherited 'Best in the world a year too early' syndrome. They played some lovely stuff against the Irish, but what has always marked out really good All Black teams is remorselessness.
A really good All Black team, leading 52-7 after 51 minutes against opponents reduced to 14 men, would surely have expected to at least beat the clock, probably without conceding another try. Even allowing for Henry's urge to tinker and first-game rustiness, they would not expect to concede three tries to two - giving Ireland a metaphorical bonus point - in that final 29 minutes.
This is rather akin to being told that after a lethal animal has killed you, it will not necessarily maul the corpse too badly. But mercies may come in small quantities over the coming couple of weekends.