New Zealand 46-6 Wales

A typically ruthless All Blacks display saw the home side step up a gear in their preparations for the upcoming Rugby Championship, brushing aside a tired Wales team in Dunedin.

The result sees New Zealand win the test series 3-0, and the men in red will undoubtedly be glad to fly home. All Blacks’ coach Steve Hansen suggested some of the visiting players were already on the aeroplane going into this game, given the defeatist nature of the score-line, which is the fifth-largest winning margin the Kiwis have managed over Wales.

Looking back on this tour, I’m sad to say I see very few positives from a Welsh perspective. A turning point was the disastrous mid-week loss to Waikato Chiefs, which really served to highlight the lack of strength-in-depth we have in Wales. This opens up the question of how the Regions can respond: New Zealand have a production line of top class players in virtually every position on the field, but how many truly world class players do Wales have? When Taulupe Faletau is injured, where do we turn? Who do we go to when Dan Biggar is injured? Rhys Priestland has been a bench warmer for Bath last season, and Gareth Anscombe is some way from proving himself on the international stage.

Biggar and Alun Wyn Jones have both been quiet on this tour, which I think has also stifled Wales’ ability to go forward. Granted, NZ have obviously done their homework – you don’t win back-to-back World Cups without playing smart. However, I expected more from the Ospreys duo during the test series.

I also feel there are question marks over Sam Warburton. I do fear he has been picked as Captain on reputation rather than form. Just look at Chris Robshaw: being stripped of the Captaincy has seen him put in some barnstorming performances for England against the Aussies.

It was a real shame that Wales were robbed of George North after the first test too, because he really was causing some problems for the All Blacks.

Next up for Wales, the Autumn series in November. It is absolutely vital that we lay down a marker against either Australia or South Africa in Cardiff.

 

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New Zealand 36-22 Wales

Wales slipped to defeat in the second test against the All Blacks in Wellington on Saturday, handing the hosts a series victory with one game remaining.

It was another early morning on Saturday, and I remained hopeful lessons could be learned from the first test. On reflection, it’s difficult to asses exactly where this Wales team currently stands, or indeed whether there was any real improvement in performance. Furthermore, an improved All Blacks showing makes judgement of Wales even more difficult to pin down.

There are a few key talking points from the game:

  1. Wales continued to attack for 80 minutes. This was a must after last week’s game, where we were restricted to defending in the closing quarter. It’s clear the ABs edge out Wales in terms of fitness also, although I feel we are not too far behind. It was pleasing to see resolve in attack in the closing stages, and it paid dividends, with Liam Williams and Jonathan Davies both touching down in the final ten minutes.
  2. Rhys Patchell put on an assured display in his first ever test start. He was competitive in the air, and showed some dazzling footwork. Given the magnitude of the challenge New Zealand provides, he gave a superb account of himself and, I feel, really staked his claim for a full back berth in the Wales team going forward.
  3. Our defence needs to be tightened. The first All Blacks try came as a result of defending too deep, and Jon Davies running out of the line. Amos and Patchell had no chance because there was a huge overlap. We have been leaking tries in the last few test games, and pundits are starting to ask questions of defence guru Shaun Edwards. However, perhaps this says more of the calibre of opposition Wales have faced – a strong, rejuvenated England, and the two-times world champions, no less.
  4. It has been said that Wales are trying to “evolve” their style of play – not just to overcome the All Blacks, but also to become stronger moving forward. Sam Warburton pointed out an a post match interview that the team has “surprised ourselves” with how comfortable they have been with the ball in hand. Wales had the lion’s share of territory and possession on Saturday, but as we know, the most important statistic is on the scoreboard. If Wales continue to be bold in attack, and can develop a ruthless, cutting edge, they have a real chance of winning the final test in Dunedin.

In other rugby news, Scotland laboured to a 26-13 victory in Japan, while Ireland surrendered a 19-3 half-time lead to lose to South Africa, taking their three-test series down to the wire. Italy also scraped past the United States, while France were comfortably beaten by Argentina.

Meanwhile, England move up to second place in the world rankings with a 23-7 demolishing of Australia. They have won the test series with one game remaining, and seem to be setting the standard for the northern hemisphere and present. Their lauded second-row partnership of George Kruis and Maro Itoje is already being touted as a shoe-in for next summer’s British and Irish Lions tour of New Zealand.

Speaking of which, the Head Coach role for that tour will be decided in August, with Warren Gatland supposedly still the first choice. Many also see Ireland’s Joe Schmit or Scotland’s Vern Cotter as viable options (I understand that Eddie Jones will not be considered for some reason).

If Wales can turn things around this week, a victory on Saturday would surely make Gatland favourite for the role.

New Zealand v Wales: The Second Test

Less than 12 hours to go, then, until Wales take on the All Blacks in the second test match of their three-test tour. I have to say, there seems to be little in the way of optimism from the press and the public alike in Wales right now, especially on the back of Tuesday’s hiding against the Chiefs.

There are a couple of reasons to be cheerful though.

A few standout performers from last week’s first test in Auckland will be looking to crank it up another notch this Saturday – Taulupe Faletau, Rhys Webb and Liam Williams will certainly hope to continue in similar form. Dan Biggar was clearly targeted last week, meaning we need to see more variety from him to keep the All Black’s guessing.

Wales are a very fit team, but looked out on their feet after 65 minutes in Auckland. We also lost our shape, and our plays looked so disjointed, following the introductions off the bench. So, this week, I hope to see intensity levels remain for the full 80 minutes, and a smoother transition when replacements are needed. The All Blacks make it look so easy – they really do work like a machine.

Steve Hansen has been oddly complimentary of Wales’ efforts this week, and believes we will be more dangerous on the back of the disastrous mid-week mauling. I think even New Zealanders are fed up of Wales’ valiant losing performances. I hope we can gain an edge, a mental toughness, from the first two games. Otherwise, we will be staring down the barrel of a 3-0 whitewash.

There’s no denying Wales have a mountain to climb, but, if they build on the foundations of last week and play with confidence and flair, I still believe we can do it! Come on Wales!

Patchell to Start in Second All Blacks Test

Superb news from the Welsh camp as Rhys Patchell is named at full-back for Wales’ second test against New Zealand in Wellington on Saturday.

I can’t enthuse enough about Patchell. He is, quite simply, magnificent. Over the last few years he has showed the kind of skill, endeavour and composure at regional level that you would expect of the utmost professionals. I have documented time and time again how devastated I am to see Patchell having moved West – from Cardiff Blues to Scarlets – ahead of next season.

Patchell is brilliant at 10 and 15, but while he is said to favour the number 10 shirt, there is no denying the impact he has had at 15 for Blues this season. Combining with Gareth Anscombe at fly-half, he has proved to be lethal in attack and counter-attack. From full-back, he has a lot more space and time, and I think this is when Patchell is at his most dangerous. I sincerely hope he makes a huge statement this Saturday; he certainly has a golden opportunity to do so.

The only other change to the starting line-up sees Luke Charteris start at lock, with Bradley Davies dropping to the bench, as I predicted. The towering second-row will surely be an asset in the line-out, and always makes a nuisance of himself in the loose and at the breakdown.

Can Wales defy form and history this weekend? Time is running out to prove a point. Let’s throw off the shackles and play with some real flair. And play for 80 minutes, of course. If we can manage that, anything is possible.

 

Chiefs 40 – 7 Wales

I actually cannot believe this score-line, despite having heard from one of my colleagues in work this morning that Wales had been comfortably swept aside by the Super Rugby outfit in Hamilton.

What an absolute disaster.

I remained optimistic following Saturday’s brave effort against the All Blacks. I follow a bit of the Super Rugby tournament, and I’m well aware of the quality the Chiefs have in their ranks (eight of whom, I should point out, are currently away with the New Zealand squad). I thought this had the potential to be a very competitive fixture, and while a I thought a narrow loss in a high scoring game was one possible eventuality, I wouldn’t have dared predict the horror show in Hamilton.

Scrolling through a list of Wales’ match-day 22 makes me even more confused – and a little angry, actually. OK, there were a small number of last-minute changes to today’s team, most likely to accommodate the preferred combinations required for Saturday’s second test against the All Blacks. However, Scott Williams started, as did Luke Charteris, who is fresh from Top 14 action in France.

I look at the likes of Josh Turnbull – my Cardiff Blues’ player of the season – as well as Eli Walker, Tom James, Matthew Morgan, Gareth Davies. These are all first choice players for their respective regions/clubs. Some of them featured in Saturday’s first test match, but this is the gruelling nature of the summer tours.

The fact is, the chasm in quality between our respective club competitions is vast, and, contrary to our beliefs and hopes, it seems to be getting even bigger.

I’ve only seen the “highlights”, so to speak, but I’m baffled by the seeming lack of commitment. My workmate earlier commented, “no-one wanted the ball, no-one wanted to run into contact”. Well, this was meant to be a trial to potentially win a place in Saturday’s squad.

The signs are not good. Wales could get absolutely blown away on Saturday at this rate. I can’t help but feel, with England having beaten Australia, and Ireland seeing off South Africa over the weekend, Wales are falling behind. Granted, we are facing the World Champions in their own backyard. But this is professional sport and we haven’t beaten the All Blacks in 27 attempts.

Based on today’s result, I’d say we’re as far from beating them as ever before.

New Zealand 39 – 21 Wales

Wales produced an scintillating first half performance at Eden Park before eventually being overpowered by the hosts in their first match of the three-test series.

Superb tries from Taulupe Faletau and Rhys Webb saw Wales lead at half-time, but true to form, the All Blacks came out firing after the interval, scoring three tries and restricting the visitors to just three points.

I have to say, it was edge-of-the-seat viewing. I dared believe Wales were about to make history. The unity and hunger was evident.

The All Blacks are able to see out a game like no other sporting team on the planet. They truly play for 80 minutes. They are relentless. Their final try was beyond full time, when victory was already certain. That kind of ruthlessness is what makes them so dangerous to play against.

I felt Wales struggled to maintain momentum following the introduction of the replacements around 65 minutes, and we were largely restricted to defending. Too many errors crept in, and the All Blacks will always punish mistakes. I was particularly disappointed with the number of line-out errors we made in the closing stages.

George North had a big game, continuing his Six Nations form, but picked up a hamstring injury late on which could rule him out for the remaining fixtures. He’s due to be assessed on the injury today, and I hope he pulls through because he was back to his destructive best yesterday. Liam Williams was also prominent, bursting through mid-field to set up Rhys Webb’s stunning try – the scrum-half also having a brilliant day at the office.

I still believe we have the fitness and fire-power in this Wales team to take a scalp on this tour. The substitutions were tactical but I’m not sure the personnel were correct on this occasion. Next week Luke Charteris is tipped to return to the starting XV, a move which would strengthen our line-out play.

Next up, though, is the Waikato Chiefs in Hamilton. I love these mid-week tour matches! The Chiefs are absolutely on fire in the Super Rugby tournament, and this should be a cracking game.

One final note – Wales beat Slovakia in their first ever match at the Euros 2016! Well done lads, superb!

 

A Massive Weekend for Welsh Sport!

In case you haven’t heard…

Wales take on New Zealand at Eden Park in Auckland at 8:35am, looking to break a cycle of 26 games, and 63 years, without tasting victory. I have to say, I’ve read these statistics in virtually every preview of this weekend’s test match, but I’m not really a big fan of statistics. Sport can have little respect for history and statistics.

After a comprehensive thumping from England in their last run-out, Gatland’s men have several key figures returning. Warburton returns to lead Wales, with powerhouse lock Bradley Davies joining Alun Wyn Jones in the engine room. This will be Jones’ 100th Wales cap, and no more than he deserves, given his reputation of one of the most committed and uncompromising players in the Northen Hemisphere. I am excited by the inclusion of Hallam Amos on the wing, as the lightening-fast winger perhaps arrives under the radar, with many pundits looking at the potentially explosive battle between George North and the magnificent Julian Savea. I hope Amos produces a little magic on Saturday.

I also wanted to send good luck and best wishes to the Wales football team, who make their first ever appearance at the Euros in France tomorrow, against Slovakia. One day, one nation, two potentially historic games. I am immensely proud to see Wales having qualified for the finals, and here’s hoping we can progress even further.

Finally, a big shout out to all my mates who are heading out to France (via Barcelona) to join the party! Have a good one boys!

Come on Wales!