Wales for the World Cup? Anything is possible after one of the most astonishing matches in the history of the tournament. The Welsh led 34-28 early in the second half after staging a blitz and New Zealand were in big trouble. In the end the All Blacks pulled clear with three tries in the last 20 minutes but they, and almost everybody else in the crowd of 80,000, were stunned.
All of a sudden the Webb Ellis Trophy is there for the taking. Australia, the defending champions, were shaken to the core by Ireland's display in Melbourne and now the All Blacks have been made to look vulnerable, even exposed. England's quarter-final against Wales in Brisbane next Sunday has taken on a new complexion.
South Africa, who play New Zealand in Melbourne, will have watched this match with a degree of confusion. They might even have been licking their lips.
For the first time in a long time Wales played with a passion, pride, skill and organisation that most observers thought had long disappeared. They were quite magnificent, especially in a sensational spell of scoring either side of half-time, and totally unrecognisable from the side that was whitewashed in the Six Nations. In their last three matches against the All Blacks Wales had been beaten 42-7, 43-17 and, only last June, 55-3. In 1935, Wales scored three tries against New Zealand and they are still talking about it. Yesterday they scored four tries in a Test that will probably be discussed forever.
Only France, who scored 41 points in the World Cup semi-final in 1999, have managed more points against the All Blacks. The transformation in Wales, who struggled to beat Tonga, was phenomenal. Steve Hansen, the New Zealander who succeeded another New Zealander, Graham Henry, as the coach of Wales, has, as if by magic, conjured a performance that simply was not on the cards.
The intriguing thing is that it may have come about more by accident than design. "We've closed the gap a little bit," Hansen said. "It will be really interesting to see if we can back it up against England. I'm very proud. We didn't win the game, that's the frustrating part, but we've come a long way in a short time."
When asked if Wales could beat England, John Mitchell, the New Zealand coach who used to work with England, replied: "Without a doubt. It's not at Twickenham and Wales will take a lot from this."
To qualify for the quarter-finals, presumably as runners-up to New Zealand in Pool D, Wales had to beat Italy. Having done that, in not the most conclusive manner with what was regarded as his top team, Hansen made 10 changes for the match against the All Blacks. "Contrary to a lot of opinions we came to Sydney to win,'' he said. If that is the case, about the only people who believed him were the players, most of whom would not have expected to play in the quarter-final.
Take Shane Williams, the little Neath wing, who made the squad of 30 as the 30th name and as a third scrum-half. He had not made an appearance in the tournament, yet here he made some outstanding breaks, creating a try and scoring one.
Mitchell was asked if he had seen Williams before. "Is he the No 6?" Mitchell replied. No, Williams was the No 14. The No 6, equally outstanding, was Jonathan Thomas who made Reuben Thorne, the All Blacks captain and No 6, look invisible. The suspicion is the All Blacks did not do their homework.
Whereas New Zealand picked their strongest team, Wales did not. Or they thought they did not. Iestyn Harris was not even on the bench. Mitchell will be a lot more worried than Hansen. The All Blacks defence was frequently torn apart. Jonathan Thomas - for Mitchell's benefit he was the blind-side flanker who ran up a storm - was in Hamilton five months ago when Wales were hammered.
"We realised that if we kicked possession away we'd get punished," Thomas said. "We had to keep the ball and go through phases. We ran good angles and the holes seemed to be there."
Holes galore and Thomas, sharp as a whippet, went through most of them, latching on to short passes in well executed moves that had the All Blacks bemused. Behind the back row, Gareth Cooper and Stephen Jones hardly put a foot wrong. And the front-row battle was so torrid, both sides replaced two thirds of the combatants.
New Zealand might have thought they were on the training field when Joe Rokocoko raced in on the left wing after 100 seconds. After five minutes Wales lost their full-back, Garan Evans, who went to hospital with suspected concussion, but then the whole world seemed to spin differently on its axis when Gareth Thomas, Evans' replacement, came within a fingertip of a try and then Stephen Jones, Tom Shanklin and a brilliant off-load by Jonathan Thomas created a try for Mark Taylor. New Zealand thought normal service had been resumed when Rokocoko, with another great run, crossed again, followed by Leon MacDonald and Ali Williams.
The All Blacks were 28-10 in front and then the sling shot. Sonny Parker went over; another tremendous attack, a drive from a line-out and the captain, Colin Charvis, was over the line like a steeple chaser. With Stephen Jones kicking his goals, it was 28-24 at half-time and Wales went off to a standing ovation, something they have not seen in Cardiff for a very long time.
It got better. After Jones had kicked a penalty, Ceri Sweeney, who had replaced Parker, went through the All Blacks midfield and when they moved it left, Shane Williams strolled over. Wales had scored 24 points in 12 minutes, which is more than they had managed against New Zealand in the past 50 years, moving from 10-28 to 34-28.
The All Blacks needed their stars to perform and they did, Doug Howlett, twice, Spencer and Aaron Mauger crossing for tries. "We had to work very hard," Mitchell said. "This was a great test from a proud country and there's a great heritage between the two nations. We've been in need of this for some time. There were some defensive lapses but we'll benefit from that. We can fix things quite quickly." They have not got much time.
New Zealand: Tries Rokocoko 2, Howlett 2, MacDonald, Williams, Spencer, Mauger. Conversions MacDonald 5. Penalties MacDonald. Wales: Tries Taylor, Parker, Charvis, S Williams. Conversions S Jones 4. Penalties S Jones 3.
NEW ZEALAND: M Muliaina (Auckland), D Howlett (Auckland), L MacDonald (Canterbury), A Mauger (Canterbury), J Rokocoko (Auckland), C Spencer (Auckland), J Marshall (Canterbury), D Hewett (Canterbury), K Mealamu (Auckland), G Somerville (Canterbury), B Thorn (Canterbury), A Williams (Auckland), R Thorne (capt, Canterbury), R McCaw (Canterbury), J Collins (Wellington). Replacements: K Meeuws (Auckland) for Hewett, 51; M Hammett (Canterbury) for Mealamu, 72; R So'oialo (Wellington) for Collins, 52.
WALES: G Evans (Llanelli), S Williams (Neath-Swansea), M Taylor (Llanelli), S Parker (Celtic), T Shanklin (Cardiff), S Jones (Llanelli), G Cooper (Celtic), I Thomas (Llanelli), R McBryde (Llanelli), A Jones (Neath-Swansea), B Cockbain (Celtic), R Sidoli (Celtic), J Thomas (Neath-Swansea), C Charvis (unaffiliated), A Popham (Gwent). Replacements: G Thomas (Celtic) for Evans, 4; C Sweeney (Celtic) for Taylor, 46; D Peel (Llanelli) for Cooper, 76; M Davies (Celtic) for McBryde, 62; G Jenkins (Celtic) for A Jones (33), C Wyatt (Llanelli) for Cockbain, 59; D Jones (Llanelli) for Popham (64).
Referee: A Watson (South Africa).Reuse content