With the Test Window now open, Wales’ Autumn Nations Series campaign got underway with the visit of New Zealand to the Principality Stadium. Wales were forced into a late reshuffle after Leigh Halfpenny pulled out through injury but should have had an early numerical advantage when referee Wayne Barnes and his team of officials missed Dalton Papali’i making contact with the head of Gareth Anscombe, and instead Richie Mo’unga opened the scoring with a penalty just a minute later. The Welsh were having the best of the possession early on, but a break from Papali’i following a turnover from Ardie Savea put the All Blacks on the front foot in the Welsh 22, and after going through the phases, Codie Taylor finally burrowed over for the try. As both sides tried to deal with a greasy ball, the visitors were getting the penalties in their favour, and their next visit to the Welsh 22 once again ended with Taylor forcing him over from close range after phases of concerted pressure. With Wales finally winning a penalty after 20 minutes, Rhys Priestland put the ball in the corner, but their maul went nowhere and their attack was pedestrian at best, going backwards for the majority of the 17 phases before finally winning another penalty. Priestland again kicked to the corner, and this time the crowd had something to celebrate as a lovely strike sent the looping Rio Dyer through a gap to score on his debut. A counterrucking turnover of the next All Blacks attack upped the volume of the crowd, and a break from Nick Tompkins off the resulting lineout brought the home side up to the 22 and drew a penalty, which Gareth anscombe kicked to bring the deficit back to 7 points after half an hour of play. But the All Blacks were straight back into the Welsh 22 following a penalty from Taulupe Faletau, and after putting pressure on the line to earn a penalty advantage, Richie Mo’unga kicked high to the corner, where Jordie Barrett beat Dyer in the air for the visitor’s third try. The hosts had one more chance before the break when an overthrown New Zealand lineout was gathered by Ken Owens, drawing a penalty which Anscombe kicked for a halftime score of 13-22.
The Kiwis were under pressure soon after the break, as a rare errant pass from Aaron Smith was kicked to the corner by Tomos Williams, who combined with Taulupe Faletau to force Beauden Barrett out right next to his try line, and while they failed to make anything of note from the position, they did earn a penalty, which Anscombe kicked to cut the lead to 6. Smith quickly made amends though, as he crabbed off the side of a maul and found a gap to shoot through to celebrate becoming New Zealand’s most-capped back with a try. The Welsh refused to give up, though, and when Tomos Williams chipped through in the 22 under penalty advantage, Rhys Priestland challenged Mo’unga in the air to force the ball to bobble loose, and skipper Justin Tipuric just about collected the ball with sufficient control as he went over next to the posts to give Anscombe an easy conversion. The All Blacks were straight back in the Welsh 22, though, and when Nicky Smith fell for the most theatrical of offloads from Ardie Savea, the back row carried through the gap and offloaded to Aaron Smith for another try. A Tomos Williams quick tap pen put him in behind the defence just before the hour, but his offload to Tipuric went agonisingly forwards. In comparison, the All Blacks looked like scoring each time they made it into the Welsh 22, and after a fumble backwards from Caleb Clarke stopped an initial attempt to spread the ball, they reset and went through the phases, with Savea eventually diving over to open up an 18-point lead. With the result looking likely, Wales brought on Sam Costelow for his debut in place of Priestland, but it was the originally intended fly half for the day, Anscombe, who made the next impact as he charged down a kick from former New Zealand U20s teammate Beauden Barrett and regathered, only for Richie Mo’unga to tackle him into touch just short of the line, and with just minutes left in the game, another attack in the Welsh 22 saw Beauden Barrett sent brother Jordie over from close range. With the clock in the red, Wales chose to play from deep after winning a free kick in the own 22, but an untimely slip from Anscombe led to a turnover penalty, and after kicking to the corner, the pack drove replacement Samisoni Taukei’aho over for a try to take the All Blacks over the 50-point mark, with Beauden Barrett’s conversion making the final score 23-55.
Finding a balance
This Welsh team still isn’t the finished picture, but it appears to be finding a good balance. Rowlands and Beard are getting used to playing together as a pair, as are Tompkins and North, 2 combinations where familiarity and chemistry can be so important. In the pack, the return of Ken Owens provides a hard carrying option that allows Wayne Pivac to pair returning flanker Justin Tipuric with another jackal in Tommy Reffell, while North provides a physical option in the midfield to create space for the electric wings Rio Dyer and Louis Rees-Zammit, which was perfectly highlighted by the way he created the gap for Dyer’s try.
They aren’t the finished article, though. The rest of the tight five still needs to provide more metres with the hard carries, and until they manage that, their latchers need to do a better job of securing their weight in the tackle. Meanwhile North chose to keep hold of the ball a couple of times when he could have probably played the ball out to Rees-Zammit and then ran the inside support line. Probably most worrying was how a period of 17 phases saw them go from having a driving maul about 8m out from the All Blacks line to being 30 metres from the line. They may have won the penalty at the end of it, but their attack looked pedestrian at times and easy to deal with… and this is against a team who aren’t known for their impressive defence of late.
It’s a step in the right direction for Wayne Pivac’s men, but they still have a way to go if they want to challenge in the World Cup next year.
One thing that the All Blacks should be really happy with from this game is the effectiveness of their scrum. Granted the Welsh aren’t known for having an elite scrum, but the All Blacks pack were dominant on the day, winning a number of penalties and refusing to give Wales a clean platform to work off, while giving themselves a solid and steady platform.
The new starting prop pair of Ethan de Groot and Tyrel Lomax has been a revelation for the All Blacks in recent months, and at 24 and 26 respectively, you can’t help but think that they could potentially be the pairing for the next cycle, while Fletcher Newell is also establishing himself as a regular off the bench aged just 22.
The pack will certainly face much sterner tests, but the continued success of such a young group gaining experience is huge for a side that are arguably in a miniature rebuild with the World Cup just a year away.