Rokocoko dashes the dreams of Wales

Wales 25 New Zealand 26
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The Independent Online

Amid a cacophonous racket that assaulted the senses, Wales laid a similarly rattling siege to New Zealand's half-century of dominance over them and, yet again, came up short. Agonisingly, achingly short - just a single point, as it had been in the infamous "line-out dive" meeting here in 1978 - but the same result. The All Black history book does not make room for moral victories.

Amid a cacophonous racket that assaulted the senses, Wales laid a similarly rattling siege to New Zealand's half-century of dominance over them and, yet again, came up short. Agonisingly, achingly short - just a single point, as it had been in the infamous "line-out dive" meeting here in 1978 - but the same result. The All Black history book does not make room for moral victories.

The pre-match hype inevitably surrounded the return of New Zealand's coaches, Graham Henry and Steve Hansen, to the land of their former employers, but it was Wayne Smith, the third member of the All Black hierarchy, who had most cause to crack a smile mixing satisfaction with, undoubtedly, a huge measure of relief.

Smith's back division rescued New Zealand; the Welsh dragon breathed fire up front, all right, but whenever the Blacks went wide they were smoulderingly hot. With neither side able to rely entirely on their goal-kickers, New Zealand were thankful for two tries from the slashingly dangerous left wing Joe Rokocoko and another by the full-back Mils Muliaina. "I'm proud of both teams," said Henry.

In weather that would have made Captain Oates think twice over venturing outside, it was a no-brainer to decide to close the Millennium Stadium roof. The place became even more cathedral-like than normal and - in an innovatory touch - a member of the Welsh National Opera strode down the field with a rendition of "Calon Lan" in a staged response to the All Black haka. An opening quarter of "precision rugby" from Wales - just as their coach, Mike Ruddock, had called for - further ratcheted up the optimism after the two-point defeat by South Africa here two weeks ago.

Perhaps New Zealand were under-strength, but no more so than any other touring team who might blood a couple of Test newcomers. In the initial exchanges Wales debunked the conventional wisdom that backs should seek out forwards in broken play, with heavy, slamming tackles made by Mefin Davies, Gethin Jenkins and Gareth Llewellyn on All Blacks in double-digit jerseys. Llewellyn, 35, made his Test debut against New Zealand in 1989, so knew as much as anyone about the dire Welsh record of 16 straight defeats going back to the 13-8 win in Cardiff by Bleddyn Williams' team of coronation year, 1953.

The latest attempt at dethroning the All Blacks began with an exchange of penalties between Stephen Jones and Dan Carter. At 3-3 with 19 minutes gone, Tom Shanklin raced to a try for Wales, on the end of a lovely deft kick by Stephen Jones over the heads of Casey Laulala and Muliaina. The conversion from Jones was missed, but he reset his sights to make it 11-3 before the most potent weapon in New Zealand's bulging arsenal struck. Rokocoko took Muliaina's pass and dotted down his 26th try in 22 Tests in a spellbinding Test career of all of 17 months.

With Carter's conversion, New Zealand trailed 11-10 just after the half-hour, and demonstrated their capabilities with a sharp attack from a line-out take by the beanpole Ali Williams. Rokocoko knifed into the Welsh midfield, and the flanker and first-time captain, Richie McCaw, was scarcely less rapid in support. It flustered Wales into conceding a penalty which Carter kicked to give the All Blacks the lead for the first time.

Wales responded with Jones making it 14-13 at half-time. And the roof shook afresh two minutes into the second half when a rolling maul ended with Mefin Davies peeling off for the second Welsh try. Jones's missed conversion was the prelude both to Gavin Henson taking over the kicking and New Zealand scoring from the restart. Ripping the ball from a maul, they worked Muliaina in at the right-hand corner. For a while it seemed Wales were losing their focus. Dwayne Peel turned possession over to his opposite number, Piri Weepu, and a wonderful New Zealand counter attack ended with Rokocoko burning off the unfortunate Shanklin, who looked lame by comparison.

Instead, Wales kept at it. Ma'a Nonu went to the sin bin for a late tackle on Henson, who picked himself to land a 45-metre penalty from where his clearing kick had landed. After 69 minutes, Somerville set up an All Black ruck, Wales went off their feet and Carter put his side 26-22 up.

The Wales captain, Gareth Thomas, admitted he became confused over how much time was left at the last knockings; that he might have gone for a try instead of allowing Henson to punch over a penalty inside the 22 when the stadium clock, which was marking the actual game-time, showed three minutes remaining.

It was not long enough to salve for good those 51 years of hurt. But after this all Wales can believe anew that, one day soon, they will.

Wales: G Thomas (Toulouse, capt); T Shanklin (Cardiff Blues), S Parker (Neath-Swansea Ospreys), G Henson (Ospreys), S Williams (Ospreys); S Jones (Clermont-Auvergne), D Peel (Llanelli Scarlets); G Jenkins (Blues), M Davies (Neath), A Jones (Ospreys), B Cockbain (Ospreys), G Llewellyn (Narbonne), D Jones (Scarlets), M Owen (Newport-Gwent Dragons), C Charvis (Newcastle Falcons). Replacements: G Cooper (Dragons) for Peel (66), D Jones (Ospreys) for Jenkins (34-38, 52), Steve Jones (Ospreys) for Davies (71), Jenkins for A Jones (73), R Jones (Ospreys) for Llewellyn (55), M Williams (Blues) for Charvis (70).

New Zealand: M Muliaina (Auckland); D Howlett (Auckland), C Laulala (Canterbury), A Mauger (Canterbury), J Rokocoko (Auckland); D Carter (Canterbury), P Weepu (Wellington); T Woodcock (North Harbour), K Mealamu (Auckland), G Somerville (Canterbury), C Jack (Canterbury), A Williams (Auckland), R So'oialo (Wellington), M Tuiali'i (Auckland), R McCaw (Canterbury, capt). Replacements: M Nonu (Wellington) for Mauger (40), B Kelleher (Waikato) for Weepu (71), C Hayman (Otago) for Woodcock (54).

Referee: T Spreadbury (England).

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