Alan Watkins: Welsh challenge foundered after ill-advised gamble on line-out lottery

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The Independent Online

On Saturday morning a friend telephoned to ask for my prediction of the points margin for New Zealand over Wales. He was contemplating making one of those spread bets which I avoid (as he did also on this occasion). Twenty-five, I said, which turned out to be 38. He went on to ask me whether any side in the world could now beat New Zealand.

I thought a bit and said that France, playing at Marseilles or Toulouse (where the French used to play internationals) might, just, be able to pull it off. I should have added that the match would have to take place between the beginning of April and the end of October. I forgot to point out that South Africa had beaten New Zealand three months previously in the Tri-Nations competition.

They achieved this by not allowing New Zealand to play. Their chosen instrument was ferocious tackling. Wales's tackling in the first quarter at Cardiff was almost, but not quite, as fierce, with Gareth Thomas, Colin Charvis and Duncan Jones shirking nothing. But at no stage did they look as if they were going to stop New Zealand from playing. That at half-time the score was a modest 13-3 in the visitors' favour was the result of their largely self-induced errors.

No doubt Gavin Henson was missed because of his ability to punt the ball long distances. But even Stephen Jones is not exactly a beginner in this area either, even if his range is not as great as Henson's; and New Zealand were pinned in a corner only towards the end of the match, when for them it was safely out of sight.

When Wales were given a penalty (as they were, twice) in these cramped circumstances, Stephen Jones popped the ball over in the corner again, almost automatically, as if there could be no doubt about the correct course to follow. But New Zealand were dominating the line-out, as they had throughout the afternoon, and cleared their line without any difficulty. Admittedly it would have been profitless to take a shot at goal at this stage of the proceedings. But what was wrong with taking a tap penalty or a scrum?

This is, I confess, one aspect of the modern game that never ceases to puzzle me. A team are close to their opponents' line and are given the choice of a possible three points, a five-metre line-out, a tap penalty or a scrum. The last two carry guaranteed possession, whereas a line-out remains a lottery, wherever it takes place, or whoever is doing the throwing in.

One trouble for Wales was that the scrum did not guarantee possession. Or, if it did - and, technically, there were no strikes against the head by either side - it was not possession of a high order. Until Chris Horsman came on to replace Adam Jones just after half -time, the New Zealand front row, with Carl Hayman well to the fore, seemed to be doing much as they liked.

I am not complaining - only Australians complain about being worsted in the front row - and I am not saying that different refereeing would have altered the match in any way at all. But there did seem to be times when Chris White, the referee, should have reset the scrum, with or without a reversed put-in, instead of allowing chaos to ensue.

For this reason I think Michael Phillips, the new Wales scrum-half, has been treated harshly by the press. Certainly he was lucky to be preferred to Gareth Cooper in the absence of Dwayne Peel - and Cooper was more impressive when he came on in the second half - but Phillips had some dreadful ball to deal with.

This is more about Wales than it is about New Zealand, which may strike some readers as perversity on my part. But what is there to say? They have always excelled at doing the simple things very efficiently and very fast. To these qualities they have now added great speed in the backs with a touch of inspiration as well, which tended to be lacking in the Kiwis of old.

One other aspect which perplexes me is what I call the tyranny of the gain-line. The two teams now line up, eyeball to eyeball, as if they were in the trenches of the 1914-18 war. Stephen Jones, in an interview before Saturday's match, said that in France he was now required to stand flatter and that this had improved his game.

I wonder. For how can an outside-half take the ball at speed? And how can he and the other backs find the room to do anything constructive? I hope to return to these questions in later columns.