Wales had set themselves a goal of herculean proportions in traveling to New Zealand and facing the All Blacks in a 3 test series. Not since 1953 have Wales beaten an All Black team, and never on New Zealand soil. Not even the most optimistic Wales fans hoped for much from this tour. However, what the Welsh fans did expect was for their team to be competitive against the most dominant team in international sport.
Warren Gatland has stated, since his return, that despite losing the series 3-0 there was still plenty to take away from the tour and that ‘important lessons had been learned for the team’s development’. However, the vital point of contention is whether this will have an impact on Wales going forward to both the Autumn Internationals and the 2017 6 Nations. Wales under Gatland have been successful when they have had a structured approach and have done the basics well; this has been coined as “Gatland-ball”, with hard runners staying narrow and a brutal rush defensive line. One of the biggest positives to take from this tour was the first 40 minutes of the first two tests. During these periods Jamie Roberts was used as a distributor, Liam Williams looked threatening as a runner, Rhys Patchell (despite a shaky start) worked well in tandem with Biggar and the pack looked mobile, while led by one of the form 8s on the planet in Faletau. This is the Wales that needs to stick around. Simply put, they cannot revert back to their previous game plan if they want to remain a competitive team against anyone other than the 6N teams during wet and windy conditions.
This was evident in the most significant Welsh play of the tour. The first try by Faletau at 8 minutes into the first half of the first test. This came from a perfectly weighted kick from Rhys Webb gathered on the chase by Ken Owens and shipped through the hands of Roberts to Liam Williams. Williams does fantastically with his snake hips to wriggle around the tackle of Julian Savea and offload to Jonathan Davies. The ball is passed from Alun Wyn Jones to Biggar, then from Biggar, it’s shipped to North who gets it to Amos who does an impressive job of drawing in Cruden and Naholo to shift it to Faletau in space on the wing. This passage of play represents what Wales are not only capable of but also what they should be striving for in their style of play after this test series. It is an example of the smart interplay between backs and forwards drawing the All Black defensive line wide and creating space. It represents accuracy and audacity from this Welsh team. There were further examples of this audacity to play with the ball throughout the first two tests, with deep running lines, crash ball players acting as distributors and support of those runners at the breakdown. Unfortunately, for the Welsh, the Kiwi’s are currently better at it.
Wales suffered a demoralising defeat in the final fixture with only a 65% tackle completion rate, not what is expected of the current Welsh crop under Shaun Edwards. There is an argument for the fact that the Welsh team is coming off of the end of a brutal season and that fatigue had a part to play. However, that is not the problem with Welsh rugby at the moment. The problem is far more entrenched. Something must change, whether it is the approach of the coaching staff or the style of play adopted by the regions during the Pro12 year. Unless something does change it is, at this moment, unforeseeable that Wales will be able to compete against the All Blacks. This is not meant to be all doom and gloom, there is a capacity to change, and what the previous paragraph represented was an example of how it is being implemented.
There is an argument that is often floated around that Wales don’t have the players, or depth in talent, to pull off a wide running game plan. That is nonsense. When there are players on the pitch like George North, who in the opening test broke 6 tackles and ran 121 metres; Liam Williams who was the standout player of the tour and forwards with the rugby brains of Faletau, Jones, Charteris and Warburton the argument is moot. No, Wales do not have strength in depth; they will always struggle in the latter stages of a game as their bench does not have the talent of their starting XV. However, to argue that they don’t have the players to change their style of play is a ridiculous assessment of the talent they currently possess. This is ultimately Gatland’s decision, he can stick with the likes of Roberts who represents a Welsh stalwart but also a relic of hopefully a bygone era in Welsh rugby, or he can opt for creative players such as Patchell and Scott Williams and usher in an adapting style of Welsh Rugby. This is not to say that the change will be immediate, in fact, that is highly unlikely, but as Eddie Jones has done for England, Gatland should look to slowly implement a new structure and bring Welsh rugby back to its rooted identity. That of tough players, a powerful pack and a backline that would salivate at the thought of running through the opposition.
Sam Warburton, the Welsh Captain, stated after the final test: ‘they were just way too good for us. The strength in depth they have in New Zealand is remarkable. The amount of talent they have got is frightening,’ he said. ‘They may have lost [Dan] Carter, [Richie] McCaw, [Ma’a] Nonu, [Conrad] Smith and all of those great players but that doesn’t make a difference here. They lose a little bit of experience but they have some super players to come in. That’s why they are the best rugby nation in the world.’ This is undeniable; New Zealand probably has the most strength in depth in world rugby. However, despite newcomers putting Wales to the sword they are by no means the finished article. Steve Hansen has a fair amount of work to do with the shaping of his team before the Lions tour in 2017. This tour gave Hansen the chance to bleed some players that certainly impressed. Yet the holes left by the departed centurions, are not necessarily nailed down.
The Open-Side flanker: Sam Cane was the heir to the throne, the natural successor, the chosen one. He had been integrated into the All Blacks camp in 2012 and was supposed to be McCaw’s understudy. He is a fantastic player and built from the same cloth as McCaw, powerful, smart, strong defensively and can hunt a turnover with the best of them. Cane represents the hard graft, no flash or razzle dazzle but instead a tireless and unappreciated amount of work. The usurper is Ardie Savea who represents everything Cane is not. Savea is rapid, he scores the length of the field tries while wheeling past wingers and fullbacks. He is equally talented in the breakdown area and currently the crowd’s favourite. Ardie is being used as an impact sub, a man with ferocity and pace that tears teams apart in the final 20 minutes after Cane has put in the shift of wearing them down. It is not expected to change, despite the popular clamour for Ardie to be given a start. However, it will make for an interesting battle for that shirt over the coming months and years.
The Fly Half: Aaron Cruden started the series but due to a neck injury during the 2nd test Beauden Barrett finished at 10 for the 3rd test. There is certainly a line of division through All Black supporters as who should be given the starting jersey. For defenders beaten, line breaks and tries scored Barrett shades it. For try assists and kicking accuracy Cruden comes out on top. However, with a personal point tally of 26 in the final test Barrett had a huge impact on the Kiwi backline. The only negative to Barrett’s name is his place kicking, but if he can get that up to scratch Cruden may struggle to take back the jersey. Furthermore, with Sopoaga waiting in the wings New Zealand is truly spoilt for choice at the moment. This decision should make for an interesting Rugby Championship.
The Centre combination: Ryan Crotty was the staple 12 over the course of the series with Fekitoa as the 13 for the first 2 tests and George Moala stepping in for the final test. They did well, all of them. With Charlie Ngatai and Sonny Bill Williams unavailable there is certainly the talent to create a world class pairing, however, they have a long way to go to fill the boots of their predecessors who racked up a phenomenal 62 test matches together. This is the area with the most chance for a shakeup come to the Rugby Championship and looking ahead. Hansen will take his time to find the right fit. We saw some magic with a combination of Fekitoa and Sonny Bill during the RWC but Ngatai has been hugely impressive for the Chiefs, likewise, Crotty has been playing well for the Crusaders. It all makes for an interesting, yet uncertain future.
Despite the fact that this All Black team is still resettling itself after a myriad of changes, Hansen has at his disposal some world class talent. However, if I was a betting man I could see this New Zealand team being beaten away from home by the Australians come the Rugby Championship, however, this year there are two Bledisloe matches in New Zealand. Therefore the Wallabies may end up struggling to claim back their most coveted trophy. But only time will tell. The terrifying point to take away from this is that this team remains an unfinished article, yet still looks almost unstoppable.
Written by RM