Who Stares Wins
by Paul Waite
23 Nov 2008
I swear there must be something to that business of thought transference promoted by psychics. How else do you explain the fact that I was musing, as is my wont, during this past week on the best way that a team could react to The Haka, and came to the conclusion that linking arms and staring back at it with implacable stony countenance was the best answer? And then Wales went and did it right there in the middle of Millenium Stadium, and did it so bloody well!
The tension at the end with both teams refusing to be the first to break away fairly crackled through the air, as if a mad scientist had cranked his Van Der Graaf generator up to the max somewhere close by. Fantastic stuff! Even a touch of the comedic, with Jonathan Kaplan flitting from one faced-off team to the other like a worried mother hen clucking at them not to be silly, and urging them to get on with the game couldn’t dispel the fiery atmosphere.
The opening stanza of the test lived up to that promise, with Wales throwing everything into it, but doing it with a great deal of control and skill. Attacks through the backs mounted by the All Blacks were largely kept in check by an effective rush defence reminiscent of the one the South Africans have been so successful with in recent years, and for the rest a good scrambling defence in behind kept the men in Black out for the first half of the game.
Running the ball the Welsh were also creative, and quick. Stephen Jones ran his back-line beautifully, and the likes of Shane Williams despite their size, were like quick-silver on their feet. Then at fullback they had Lee Byrne who showed off his world-class talent in that spot putting in a performance which would see him considered for anyones World XV.
But it was as a team that Wales greatly impressed. The touches that Warren Gatland has brought could be seen everywhere. Firstly on defence, as mentioned, but also in the way that the team supported the ball-carrier. The first half was essentially won by Wales on their greater physical presence and organisation at the collision areas, which is quite definitely a marker of the Southern Hemisphere rugby style. When you add the belief that Gatland has managed to imbue his players with, the resulting mixture is a potent rugby force once again. That said, Wales plainly faded in the final quarter as their efforts in the first 50-60 minutes caught up with them. Clearly Gatland still has some improvement in player conditioning to do before they can really foot it at the very top for the full 80.
With the spirited start from Wales it took the All Blacks a bit of re-focussing and until the second half before they started to get on top. At half-time the score was 9-6 to Wales, but the final score of 9-29 says it all. It’s one thing staying with an opponent for 60 minutes at a given level of effort, but quite another to close out the final 20 minutes and actually step it up. That is the gap that Wales face if they really want the chance to win against New Zealand in the future.
Standout areas for New Zealand were the scrum and line-out. At scrum time the Welsh were always under pressure, and moreso as the test progressed. The line-out was just a well-oiled machine for once, and never missed a beat giving the All Blacks secure possession.
With the type of game that it was, it was never going to be a great game out wide. The Welsh rush defence saw to that. But that said, the Nonu/Kahui midfield pairing worked well in its first real outing, and Nonu especially impressed with his solidity in defence and in support, earning himself a well-deserved try in the process.
Another to get a deserved try was Kaino, who scored in the final minute after the Welsh opted to play Baabaas rugby in their own 22m rather than meekly surrender to the 80 minutes on the clock. Although the Welsh were the architects of their own downfall with this try, an earlier TMO decision had seen a legitimate Kaino try ruled out, so it was good to see that injustice rectified.
Three down and one to go for the Grand Slam.
Looking over at hapless England, it would seem to be a foregone conclusion that New Zealand will complete their third Slam at Twickers next week. I don’t know, the English now probably have some powerful motivation to turn things around after the last two miserable outings, and they love to tip the All Blacks over, so it aint over ’til the Fat Lady sings. Having said that, you’d have to be pretty silly to put money on the Poms for this one.
One final comment on Australia, and in particular one Cheating Bastard named George Smith. Having watched this artful dodger in action once again against France this weekend, he has been bumped back up to the top of my shit list of Most Loathed Rugby Players. It’s a list reserved mainly for the thugs and out-and-out cheats in the game, and he’s been on top of it before most notably when he deliberately went out to KO Justin Marshall in the 2003 World Cup semi, and did just that.
So foul play and cheating is no stranger to Smith’s brain; it’s more of a live-in lodger. In fact it probably owns the bloody deeds. Watch the replay of the test against France this weekend and the way he dived head-first into the French side of a push-over scrum to knock the ball away with his hand.
In this game there is cheating and there is cheating. There are professional fouls and there are professional fouls. To watch a player looking and watching and then coming to the decision to do something so utterly, blatantly against the rules and the spirit of the game is to my mind a disgrace. If I was in Robbie Deans shoes I’d drop him for that act alone.
Wales 9: Stephen Jones 3 pen.
New Zealand 29: Ma’a Nonu, Jerome Kaino tries; Dan Carter 5 pen, 2 con.