Wales Show Promise in All Blacks Defeat

Wales fell to a 30th consecutive defeat to World Champions New Zealand in an entertaining encounter in Cardiff on Saturday night.

The hosts failed to convert pressure into points, and were made to pay dearly as, true to form, the All Blacks made the most of every half-break, and pulled well clear in the final quarter.

Wales delivered a bright start, but had only three points to show for their efforts when, somewhat against the rung of play, gargantuan winger Waisake Naholo received a looping pass from Aaron Smith and squeezed just inside the corner flag to touch down. It was an opportunist score that demonstrated just how devastating the All Blacks can be on turnover ball.

Naholo added a second on 38 minutes, before Wales finally breached the whitewash as half-time beckoned. Hallam Amos bamboozled the New Zealand defence with a rapier angle, and quick hands saw Scott Williams dive for the line to register a much-needed seven-pointer to keep Wales in touch. This is probably the best try I’ve seen Wales score in 2017.

The game’s decisive moment came on 61 minutes when Kiwi superstar Reiko Ioane intercepted a loose pass from Dan Biggar and scorched under the posts, unopposed. Wales had butchered several try-scoring opportunities by this point, and Ioane’s score signalled the game was probably safe for the visitors. Indeed, Gareth Davies’ late reply was soon cancelled out by Ioane’s second, handing New Zealand a 33-18 victory.

The World Champions showed their superiority on Saturday, but overall I am very pleased with Wales’ contribution to this game. Few would argue there are real signs that Wales are trying to reinvent their attacking game, and if they can improve on accuracy and cut out the handling errors, they have the right players to deliver a feast of exciting, attacking rugby. With England, Ireland and Scotland all having enjoyed very successful autumn campaigns, Wales are likely to go into the Six Nations as underdogs come February. However, with one game remaining for Wales – against South Africa, this Saturday – there is still time to experiment with some new player combinations and further develop their new style. A victory would certainly be a big statement from Wales following a gruelling November series.

Player of the Week

Hands down, Josh Navidi. The lynchpin of the Cardiff Blues back-row is finally enjoying his first real breakthrough into the Wales squad after making his first appearance in 2013, and waiting four years to win his second cap, against Tonga earlier in the year. With Sam Warburton, Justin Tipuric, Ross Moriarty and Ellis Jenkins all out injured at the beginning of the autumn, Navidi has grabbed his chance with both hands and has created a real headache for the selectors with a series of barnstorming, abrasive performances. Of course, he’s being doing this for the Blues for years. Long may he continue.

Team of the Week

Scotland put 53 points on Australia on the weekend, Gregor Townsend’s men running riot after the Wallabies had prop Sekope Kepu red-carded for a shoulder barge on Hamish Watson. The Scots take my team of the week award – expect them to take their rich form into next year’s Six Nations campaign.

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Wales Ready For Huge All Blacks Test

Game three of an especially bruising Autumn Campaign sees Wales face the mighty New Zealand on home soil, continuing their search for a first victory against the All Blacks since 1953.

An unconvincing victory over Georgia last Saturday is perhaps not the ideal platform from which to launch an assault on the back-to-back World Champions. That said, a somewhat experimental side did well to hold out against the Eastern Europeans, and – having been fortunate enough to have been at the game – it was pleasing to see Wales showing a desire to be creative and really make the most of talents like Hallam Amos. It was a bonus to witness the Dragons winger cross the whitewash for the second time in as many games, and there’s no doubting his ability to spot and exploit a gap. He cut a devastating angle to score the game’s only try, and (in my opinion) ought to have been awarded a second shortly afterwards when the excellent Leon Brown made a charge down midfield.

I can also confirm it was a bit of a nerve-jangling finale from where I was sitting.  Georgia gave a superb account of themselves, and came agonisingly close to snatching a dramatic draw right at the death, Wales clinging on by virtue of uncontested scrums being called following injuries to the front row contingent. Still, the Georgians earned a great deal of respect on their first ever meeting with Wales, and calls to include them in The Six Nations will grow louder in the coming months, I’m sure.

The All Blacks had a narrow escape themselves last week, a last-ditch tackle from Damien McKenzie denying the regal Stuart Hogg a potential match-winner as the clock turned red on Scotland v New Zealand.

Some critics have accused the All Blacks of mediocrity this term and, by their own lofty standards, defeats to Australia and The British and Irish Lions perhaps add weight to this argument. Don’t be fooled: they remain the most clinical and streetwise team in rugby union – perhaps even in any sport. Their showdown with Wales in Cardiff on Saturday is their last opportunity to underline their authority in 2017.

Wales will be up for the challenge, and could have the tools to push them all the way. They will need to be creative and physical, and will miss full back Liam Williams in these departments. However, with a back three of Amos, Leigh Halfpenny and the outstanding Steff Evans, I am expecting a gutsy performance that will see Wales really throw the ball about. If we can show some of the cutting edge that was lacking in the defeat to Australia earlier in the month, who knows what could happen?

WALES TEAM TO PLAY NEW ZEALAND (Saturday 25 November KO 17.15)
15. Leigh Halfpenny (Scarlets) (72 Caps)
14. Hallam Amos (Dragons) (13 Caps)
13. Scott Williams (Scarlets) (49 Caps)
12. Owen Williams (Gloucester) (2 Caps)
11. Steff Evans (Scarlets) (3 Caps)
10. Dan Biggar (Ospreys) (58 Caps)
9. Rhys Webb (Ospreys) (29 Caps);
1. Rob Evans (Scarlets) (18 Caps)
2. Ken Owens (Scarlets) (51 Caps)
3. Tomas Francis (Exeter Chiefs) (25 Caps)
4. Jake Ball (Scarlets) (27 Caps)
5. Alun Wyn Jones (CAPT) (Ospreys) (111 Caps)
6. Aaron Shingler (Scarlets) (11 Caps)
7. Josh Navidi (Cardiff Blues) (5 Caps)
8. Taulupe Faletau (Bath) (68 Caps)

REPLACEMENTS:
16. Kristian Dacey (Cardiff Blues) (6 Caps)
17. Wyn Jones (Scarlets) (3 Caps)
18. Leon Brown (Dragons) (2 Caps)
19. Cory Hill (Dragons) (8 Caps)
20. Justin Tipuric (Ospreys) (51 Caps)
21. Gareth Davies (Scarlets) (26 Caps)
22. Rhys Priestland (Bath) (49 Caps)
23. Jamie Roberts (Harlequins) (93 Caps)