Sunday, November 08, 2009

All Blacks beat Wales
Red Dragons give it their best shot
By MARC HINTON in Cardiff -

Drama. Passion. Intensity. And a hell of a finish. This was one test match that lived up to its billing as the All Blacks had to dig deep to continue their stranglehold over Wales at the Millennium Stadium today.

Warren Gatland's Wales couldn't quite manage the upset their coach had suggested was on the cards this week, but they gave it one heck of a try, taking the All Blacks to the brink as they held on for a 19-12 victory that preserves their 56-year, 21-test winning streak against this proud rugby nation.

But you have to say if the Welsh keep turning up with this sort of attitude and aptitude, surely their day will come sooner rather than later.

And this time they even hung in the contest in the second half as the All Blacks, playing much to the script of last year's similarly stirring encounter, took their game up a gear after halftime to wrest control of a contest that had looked to be slipping from their grasp.

In fact, with the match winding down into its final minutes, the Welsh had looked as though they might have snatched a dramatic draw, when big lock Alun-Wyn Jones snaffled a Jimmy Cowan pass and dashed off 60 metres upfield in a run that nearly lifted the roof off this magnificent packed stadium.

He was eventually hauled in by Zac Guildford, who had a fine test debut, and the All Blacks were able to scramble back on defence and avert the crisis.

Still, they spent the last couple of minutes in batten-down-the-hatches mode as the Welsh camped in their red zone. Alas there was to be no late try to snatch, if not a famous victory, a probably meritorious draw.

The All Blacks hung on and banked the win to keep their seven year unbeaten run in these autumn internationals intact, but boy did they know they had been in a test match by the final whistle.

Big Brad Thorn, that ageless wonder, had a magnificent match for the All Blacks as he once again turned back the clock, and behind him the black pack took their game to the level they needed to in the second spell. Hooker Andrew Hore also toiled mightily.

Conrad Smith and Guildford were probably the pick of the backs, though Mils Muliaina had one of his better matches of the year at the back. Still, it was to Wales' immense credit that they kept the New Zealanders to just the single try as they attacked them with a venom in the second half.

Three times the New Zealanders looked to have crossed the line in the second spell, and three times the TMO ruled that desperate Welsh defence had denied them. It was magnificent stuff.

Wales gave it their best shot, all right, and in the end were worthy of their coach's brave words in the buildup. This is some team Gatland is building, and the canny Kiwi is right to talk them up.
And Graham Henry's All Blacks will also take some satisfaction in this rollercoaster year of theirs that they stared adversity in the face, and didn't blink.

It was a case of déjà-vu as another furious first-half effort from the Welsh had them well in this contest after 40 minutes, with the scores locked at 6-6 (two penalties apiece) and Gatland's men having very much the better of the opening skirmishes.

Of course a year ago the Welsh had led the All Blacks 9-6 at halftime at this very stadium, only to be outscored 23-0 over the second stanza. Would history repeat for a side desperate to end 56 years of test match agony at the hands of the New Zealanders?

You had to say by the break, the Welsh had set themselves up perfectly. They had managed to lure the All Blacks into a one-dimensional contest of kick-and-chase football that saw the New Zealanders unable to establish any continuity of possession.

With the home team, buoyed by the capacity crowd of 74,330 in full voice as per usual, clearly winning the possession battle - if not the breakdown one - it became a case of the All Blacks hanging in rather than dictating anything.

Instead it was the Welsh who looked the more likely with ball in hand and the All Blacks who were called on to make some big tackles against some promising attacking forays. To their credit, New Zealand's defence was as secure as it was severe, a succession of Welsh sorties halted in their tracks in furious fashion.

After Carter had edged the All Blacks in front with an early second-half penalty, hooker Hore drove across for the key try just past the quarter-hour mark.

It was classic Hore. The All Blacks had attacked the left flank and Thorn and Guildford had found some space, with Hore picking up off the deck and bulldozing over. Carter's conversion took the All Blacks out to 16-6, and it was then that they threatened to blow the game open.

But the Welsh held on. Somehow. Carter extended the lead to 13, then Stephen Jones slotted a couple of three-pointers himself to get his side back within striking distance.

That they couldn't quite get there should not detract from a fabulous Welsh effort. The coach can be proud of his men.

New Zealand 19 (Andrew Hore try; Dan Carter 4 pen, con)
Wales 12 (Stephen Jones 4 pen).
Halftime: 6-6.

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