New Zealand. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .24
MAYBE the novelty has worn off. Maybe the resentment at their initial exclusion from the World Cup has yet to wear off. Whatever the reason for so many of the supporters who have given previous matches at Swansea such atmosphere staying away, they missed Wales's best performance since their reformation as they came within inches of beating New Zealand in the first game of their tour yesterday.
Many of the 6,073 who did attend believed Wales had scored a try that would have given them the lead 11 minutes from time. Jonathan Davies's high kick was caught and touched down by John Devereux, who was adamant that he had come from an on- side position behind Davies.
However, the referee, John Connolly, had ruled a Welshman offside. Although Davies tried to be diplomatic, he said: 'It was not the sort of decision that would go against New Zealand when they play at home.'
Wales could still have won without any favours being granted. In the time remaining, Jonathan Griffiths had a claim for obstruction turned down near the try-line, Allan Bateman and Devereux almost broke through and Mark Jones was stopped a couple of feet short.
As it was, a penalty to each side kept New Zealand's five- point lead intact for a hard- earned win. They owed much to an admirable back three of the pack and to the accurate kicking of Daryl Halligan, who put them ahead with a penalty in the ninth minute. Griffiths put over a drop goal to get Wales started and then the varied kicking skills of Davies contrived a handy lead. He landed two penalties to put Wales 5-2 ahead and then engineered a classic try for the Bradford Northern winger, Gerald Cordle.
Davies's long kick for the corner was perfectly judged to meet Cordle's dash along the touchline and although the Welsh captain could not add the conversion, the Kiwis were rocking.
Two penalties, the first for offside and the second when Rowland Phillips clashed with John Lomax, settled some nerves and a mistake from the otherwise immaculate Davies boot helped them into a half-time lead.
Davies kicked out on the full on the last tackle and from that gift possession Quentin Pongia made ground for Jason Mackie to score a try which Halligan improved.
Another error five minutes into the second half saw New Zealand consolidate their lead. Their captain, Gary Freeman, caught Devereux flat-footed with a dummied pass and sent Iva Ropati through the resulting gap.
Wales showed an abundance of character in the way they responded. Cordle scored from another precise Davies kick, although he was slightly fortunate not to be adjudged in touch at the corner flag. Then, remarkably, two long- range penalties from Davies put Wales back in front.
It seemed too good to be true; and it was. Devereux, for all his impressive contribution, is still too prone to the expensive error and his dropped ball allowed Mackie to stride through and Sean Hoppe to take his inside pass for what was ultimately the decisive converted try.
Wales, including their substitute, Robert Ackerman, who now represents Cardiff Institute and may be the first amateur to play for Wales at either code since the invention of boot money, had done themselves proud and New Zealand will be stronger for the experience.
Tawera Nikau, an automatic choice for the New Zealand side, could miss the first Test against Great Britain at Wembley on 16 October after being sent off for Castleford in the 15-15 draw against Leigh yesterday. A suspension of more then one game will put Nikau out of the Test.
WALES: Ford (Salford); Cordle (Bradford), Bateman (Warrington), Devereux (Widnes), Sullivan (St Helens); Davies (Warrington, capt), Ellis (Warrington); Jones (Hull), B Williams (Carlisle), Young (Salford), Marlow (Wakefield), Phillips (Warrington), Griffiths (St Helens). Substitutes: Hadley (Widnes) for Williams 67; Ackerman (Cardiff Inst) for Marlow 40.
NEW ZEALAND: M Edwards (Balmain); Halligan (North Sydney), Ropati (Auckland), Taewa (Canterbury), Hoppe (Canberra); Ngamu (Manly-Warringah), Freeman (Penrith, capt); Lomax (Canberra), Mann (Auckland), Stuart (Canterbury), Kearney (Western Suburbs), Pongia (Canberra), Mackie (Northland). Substitutes: Williams (Canterbury-Bankstown) for Edwards, 71; Piva (Wellington) for Lomax, 62; L Edwards (Canterbury) for Mackie, 76.
Referee: J Connolly (Wigan).
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