Even when they thumped someone, it backfired. Tana Umaga was having a rotten time of it before Brent Cockbain clocked him. Thereafter, he played like a world-beater. "I guess I was showing my age," the New Zealand captain said as he pondered the dropped passes and missed tackles that marked his contribution in the opening half. He was too modest to dwell on the apres-knuckle part of his day out, but it was pretty damned good, not least when, late in the game, he beat the fleet-footed Shane Williams to Conrad Smith's oblique-angled kick to present Daniel Carter with his second try.
Generally speaking, Carter does not require this kind of help. Back in July, he slaughtered the British and Irish Lions on his own, accumulating 33 points in the Wellington Test in a performance bordering on the celestial. Here, he was something less than the perfect outside-half - for instance, he threw two bullet-like passes at poor Carl Hayman, apparently under the delusion that prop forwards can catch, and saw both hit the deck in double-quick time. But with people like Umaga and Smith among his supporting cast, and with the Welsh doing their best to make him look better than ever, he still managed to play unnaturally well for someone who broke a leg during the summer.
If truth be told, this was heavyweight rugby's equivalent of the George Foreman-Joe Frazier title fight: an eagerly-awaited meeting of two champions (Six Nations and Tri-Nations) that quickly descended into no-contest territory. For New Zealand, it was too easy for words; for Wales, it was nothing short of a humiliation - a defeat of record proportions in front of a home audience who had grown used to winning important matches. The occasion marked the historic meeting of Wales and the All Black "Originals" in 1905. At times, it seemed as though the tourists would register a point for every year separating the two games.
But for a lack of timing - and, bewilderingly, a lack of basic rugby intelligence - in the first quarter, the New Zealanders would have sailed past 60. Umaga butchered one scoring opportunity, created by Smith and Joe Rokocoko, by spilling the important pass; a minute or so later, Byron Kelleher threw away another try by running smack into Gareth Thomas half a dozen metres from the line with Umaga as free as a bird outside him. The Welsh defences remained unbreached for a full 32 minutes before Rico Gear, the least celebrated but most dependable of the All Blacks' quartet of wings, finished off a lacerating move at the right corner.
And that was just about that, leaving aside the four wonderful tries - two more to Gear, the last couple to Carter - the New Zealanders registered in the remaining three-quarters of an hour and Tony Woodcock's spectacular upending of Cockbain, which was fairly reckless in an Umaga-Brian O'Driscoll kind of way but failed to generate much in the way of after-match heat.
"Look, the reality is this," said Mike Ruddock, the Wales coach, who knew the game was up the moment the All Blacks first crossed the line. "If you let them get the first one in and you're not accurate with your catch-up rugby, they'll hit you again and again. That's what happened out there. They're a great side, and we didn't deliver. If you don't deliver against great sides, you get hurt."
It is too early to report another of Welsh rugby's terminal declines, although a defeat on this scale tends to have the entire population in sandwich boards bearing the words "end" and "nigh". They were denied the services of a number of influential players - Duncan Jones showed the best of himself around the field in the absence of Gethin Jenkins, but the likes of Ceri Sweeney and Kevin Morgan were lightweight replacements for Gavin Henson and Tom Shanklin - and their preparation had been undermined by the close proximity of important Heineken Cup business. They are not as good a side as last season's triumphs suggested, but they are not as bad as this either.
Any lessons learned from this utterly one-sided encounter concerned the visitors rather than the hosts, and hard lessons they were too, not least with regard to the 2007 World Cup in France. Since arriving in these islands 10 days ago, Graham Henry, the head coach, has stuck rigidly to his line about developing fresh talent first and hunting Grand Slams second. His pronouncements have not been wholly believed, to put it mildly, but the performances of alleged bit-parters like Smith, Masoe, Neemia Tialata and James Ryan gave an air of legitimacy to his declared policy.
Smith is a player of wit and intelligence, an attacking centre who dares to be different. His running angles, his offloads, the funny little prods and sliders that make up his kicking game... all were in evidence and their cumulative effect was spellbinding. Masoe, selected for this tour ahead of the revered Marty Holah, was every bit as effective. Not even Richie McCaw, confined to the bench for 70-odd minutes, would have won more turnover ball had he started the match, and it was hard to believe he would have made more telling passes in open field. "I thought Chris was outstanding," said Henry. "He'll play many games for the All Blacks."
Henry says he is ahead of schedule in moulding together a 30-man squad capable of regaining the Webb Ellis Trophy forfeited by his nation as long ago as 1991. He may well be right. Precious few sides - sides not to be found in the lands of the Celt, that's for sure - can stack up against the All Blacks in the physical sense, and only the French at their most joyous can even dream of outplaying them with ball in hand.
The odds must now be on the New Zealanders to secure a Slam, however low it may be on their list of priorities. There are awkward challenges ahead in Dublin and London, but remember this: McCaw has not started a game yet, and neither have the Sivivatus and Howletts, the Maugers and Weepus, the Woodcocks and Mealamus. Oh dear.
Wales: G Thomas (Toulouse, capt); K Morgan (Newport-Gwent Dragons), M Taylor (Sale), C Sweeney (Dragons), S Williams (Ospreys); S Jones (Clermont Auvergne), M Phillips (Cardiff Blues); D Jones (Ospreys), M Davies (Gloucester), A Jones (Ospreys), B Cockbain (Ospreys), R Sidoli (Blues), J Thomas (Ospreys), C Charvis (Newcastle), M Owen (Dragons). Replacements: C Horsman (Worcester) for A Jones 47; G Cooper (Dragons) or Phillips 51; L Byrne (Llanelli Scarlets) for G Thomas 60; R Thomas (Blues) for Davies 66; L Charteris (Dragons) for Cockbain 67; N Robinson (Blues) for Sweeney 74; R Sowden-Taylor (Blues) for Charvis 74.
New Zealand: M Muliaina (Auckland); R Gear (Nelson Bays); C Smith (Wellington), T Umaga (Wellington, capt); J Rokocoko (Auckland); D Carter (Canterbury), B Kelleher (Waikato); N Tialata (Wellington), A Oliver (Otago), C Hayman (Otago), C Jack (Canterbury), J Ryan (Otago), J Collins (Wellington), C Masoe (Taranaki), R So'oialo (Wellington). Replacements: A Woodcock (North Harbour) for Tialata 54; A Hore (Taranaki) for Oliver 70; A MacDonald (Auckland) for Ryan 70; R McCaw (Canterbury) for Masoe 73; M Nonu (Wellington) for Gear 73; J Cowan (Southland) for Kelleher 74; L MacDonald (Canterbury) for Muliaina 78.
Referee: C White (England).Reuse content