On the day that one of their rugby teams proved that New Zealand are indeed capable of winning a World Cup, their other, more renowned side restated their credentials as the best in the world. Wales' attempt to beat the All Blacks for the first time in 55 was brave for a while, but they must be thoroughly sick of hearing that.
For 40 minutes, Warren Gatland's men threatened to fill the void that stretches back to 1953. Then reality intervened. It did so in the most physical embodiment imaginable as Graham Henry's tourists dominated the second-half. In doing so they wrecked Gatland's game plan – that his old country would be most vulnerable if they were locked in an arm wrestle.
As it was Wales were still in touch at the hour, but instead of crumbling under the pressure – as they did here in their infamous World Cup defeat by France a year ago – New Zealand came on strong. A fantastic atmosphere, filled with the sense of "I was there", was suddenly muted. The red-shirts had arrived in such hope but they left with their inferiority complex deepened. When it is time to lock horns with their nemesis again next year it will be 20 Tests without a victory. And make that 56 years.
Blessedly there was none of the farce of two years ago, when the All Blacks did the haka in the dressing room here following an argument between the two unions. Instead there was one of the most theatrical hakas of all time. The tourists' replacement scrum-half, Piri Weepu, led the war dance and everything seemed normal until the end. Wales, standing shoulder to shoulder, stared down New Zealand, who returned the compliment.
For two minutes they stood there, like 44 statues, until the referee, Jonathan Kaplan, intervened. He instructed the captains to get ready to start but Ryan Jones told him his boys would not be moving until the All Blacks moved. Remarkably, Richie McCaw blinked first and New Zealand retreated. It was a direction they were to become familiar with for the first half, but certainly not thereafter.
Gatland had told Wales that they must begin aggressively and so they did, smashing into the opposition from the kick-off, with Stephen Jones at No 10 finding holes. Within a few minutes, Ma'a Nonu committed a high tackle on Lee Byrne and Jones made it 3-0. Ten minutes later the same boot doubled the advantage. New Zealand were flapping and they began to resort to illegal methods in an effort to halt the surge. The most glaring of their misdemeanours came when McCaw went off his feet at a ruck two yards out.
Kaplan raised his hand for a penalty but resisted showing the openside the yellow card he deserved. Jones kicked his third penalty, although by then Dan Carter had put over one of his own. Still, the Kiwi fly-half had missed a very makeable one as well.
In truth, Wales should have held a much greater advantage by the time Carter punished Alun-Wyn Jones's indiscipline on the brink of the break to pull it back to 9-6. Balls just would not go to Welsh hands when required, never more than when Byrne burst through only for his flick pass to go to the covering All Black lock Brad Thorn with red shirts all around. It was a chance, a huge one.
Within a minute of the restart it was looking that bit larger as Carter levelled. Two minutes later, New Zealand were back on the Welsh line, looking certain to score. Jerome Kaino believed he had touched down and indeed he had, but only after picking it up in a ruck. That should really have resulted in a Welsh penalty, not a five-yard scrum, but no matter. Jimmy Cowan was penalised for feeding. It was only a temporary relief.
After 15 minutes of pressure the Six Nations champions buckled. When Shane Williams missed the hooker Keven Mealamu, Nonu was on hand to score. For the first time Wales were behind and it showed as much in their body language as on the stats sheet, which displayed the total turnaround in territory and possession.
There was no masking the gap in quality as the game progressed and when Kaino dived over in the final seconds the tourists' ruthlessness had its justified reward. This is a New Zealand team with genuine mettle, perhaps inspired by the staggering success of their league counterparts. Goodness knows what havoc they might create at Twickenham in six days' time.
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).
Wales: Pens: S Jones 3
New Zealand: Tries: Nonu, Kaino
Cons: Carter 2
Pens: D Carter 5
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