If Martin Johnson believes he has experienced a baptism of fire these last few weekends he would have been wise not to have looked down the M4 and watched the raging inferno heading his way. New Zealand are hot and, on the evidence of Saturday's climax, are only going to get hotter.
Graham Henry called it "the best half of rugby Richie [McCaw] and the boys have played all year", and as they reviewed the tapes of 40 minutes in which their half-time advantage was turned around so emphatically that they lost that second spell 23-0, Wales could only concur. In fact, it was some consolation that, as their own Kiwi Warren Gatland put it, "we brought out the best in the All Blacks". And the fact, of course, that they had become just the second team in history to take all the impetus from the haka.
They were trying to play down their response to the war dance at their team hotel yesterday, and refused to say whose idea it was that at the end of the haka they would simply stay rooted to the spot and stare down New Zealand for however long it took before the visitors retreated. An insider revealed that it was essentially Gatland's ploy with some input from the mischievous prop Gethin Jenkins and the wily flanker Martyn Williams.
Jenkins, whose nickname is "Melon Head" because of his skull's similarity to the fruit, revealed afterwards: "I struggled to keep a straight face when we were eyeballing them, all serious like." He managed to, though, and the All Blacks have not appeared so rattled since Willie Anderson famously led the Irish wedge that interrupted Buck Shelford's haka in 1989.
Every other reply to the haka before or since has been punished mercilessly, but just like that day at Lansdowne Road, Wales had the best of the early exchanges. Experts were last night quick to label this delicious theatre as completely irrelevant, but no one could deny that this game will be remembered for those two minutes as the referee desperately tried to get the captains to break up the stand-off and begin the match. It certainly created the most amazing atmosphere the Millennium Stadium has ever known. "Yeah, it had the desire effect," said Jenkins.
If only New Zealand did the haka at half-time as well, but they were strictly done dancing by this stage and Wales were strictly done with stunning retorts. Henry was gracious enough to heap praise on his former side – he even joked "Wales have good players, good coaches, play good footie – in fact, they should be playing in the southern hemisphere" – but the overwhelming emotion among the red shirts was one of disappointment rather than pride.
"We can't go on being the nearly men," said their ever-impressive full-back Lee Byrne. "It's the same old story in Wales. Doing quite well is not good enough."
Alun Wyn Jones expanded on his team-mate's lament. "We don't want that tag, we really don't," said the lock. "We know it's not our self-belief or our strength of mind that's wavering, it's simply the scoreline that's beating us. But at the start of the autumn series we had the stick and carrot of playing the top three southern hemisphere sides and that carrot is still there with Australia. It's going to be a monolithic task to take our chances and get that win but that is what we must focus on."
That is the word throughout a squad – OK, perhaps not the "monolithic" bit – which is clearly dejected at not being able to cross the try-line against first South Africa and now New Zealand despite creating so many chances. They could take heart, however, in their own defensive effort, restricting the rampaging All Blacks to just the two second-half tries, the first coming when two of their number were down hurt, the other coming in stoppage time).
New Zealand have yet to concede a single try in their three internationals so far on this tour and will be hell-bent on denying England on Saturday as they go for the Grand Slam. "We have a chance to do something special now," said their brilliant young centre Richard Kahui. "The All Blacks live and die by winning rugby. So if we win by three points or 50 points at Twickenham it's not going to make a difference." To Johnson it would.
Wales: Pens S Jones 3. New Zealand: Tries Nonu, Kaino; Cons Carter 2; Pens Carter 5.
Wales: L Byrne (Ospreys); L Halfpenny, T Shanklin, J Roberts (all Blues), S Williams (Ospreys); S Jones (Scarlets), G Cooper (Gloucester); G Jenkins (Blues), M Rees (Scarlets), A Jones, A-W Jones, I Evans, R Jones (all Ospreys), A Powell, M Williams, (both Blues). Replacements: L Charteris (Dragons) for Evans, 56; D Peel (Sale) for Cooper, 59; J Hook (Ospreys) for S Jones, 59; D Jones (Scarlets) for Powell, 75; J Yapp (Blues) for Jenkins, 79.
New Zealand: M Muliana (Waikato); J Rococo (Auckland), R Kahui (Waikato), M Nonu (Wellington), S Sivivatu (Waikato); D Carter (Canterbury), J Cowan (Southland); T Woodcock (North Harbour), K Mealamu (Auckland), N Tialata (Wellington), B Thorn, A Williams (both Tasman), J Kaino (Auckland), R McCaw (Canterbury, capt), R So'oialo (Wellington). Replacements: J Afoa (Auckland) for Tialata, 49; P Weepu (Wellington) for Cowan, 55.
Referee: J Kaplan (South Africa).
Man of the match: McCaw.
Attendance: 74,500.Reuse content