New Zealand are turning a darker shade of black. A year when they were suspected to be in transition after losing a number of cap centurions and senior players has seen them move on from where they left off at Twickenham last October: five Tests – before Saturday’s encounter with Argentina in Hamilton – and five victories, 192 points, 26 tries and eight penalties.
Since the opening Test against Wales at Eden Park in June, when they wobbled either side of the interval, the All Blacks have conceded four tries in as many matches, three of them coming at the fag-end when the result had long been decided. Four of the Tests have been at home, but Sydney was the scene of their most impressive victory, 42-8 over the team they defeated in last year’s World Cup final, Australia.
They have awarded seven new caps so far this year, three in the dead-rubber final Test against Wales, but five players have in that time reached the 50-cap mark. It is not a new team, more one that has been years in the crafting. As has so often been the New Zealand way, when one mainstay exits the stage, another takes to the boards without a mis-step. Beauden Barrett is running in the footsteps of Daniel Carter and Sam Cane, while still to develop his predecessor’s ability to tune in to the tolerance thresholds of referees. As a resultthe Richie McCaw lament has been hushed.
New Zealand will be even stronger by the time the Lions land in Auckland next summer. The tourists will be led for the second successive tour by a New Zealander, Warren Gatland, and for the third in five. While there was no surprise about the appointment of the Wales head coach, presiding over the first series success for 16 years in Australia in 2013 and facing no major opposition with Eddie Jones and Joe Schmidt unable to take the required season sabbatical to focus on the 10-match trip, his management team will take rather longer to sort out: this will not be another venture distinctly red and green in hue.
Gatland has not been able to end Wales’s long losing run against New Zealand, 10 defeats in 10 matches. They led at half-time in the first summer Test in Auckland, were level at the break the following week in Wellington, and twice took the lead in the final match in Dunedin before being overwhelmed, ultimately lacking their opponents’ poise under pressure, snatching at chances while the All Blacks clutched them.
The chairman of the Welsh Rugby Union, Gareth Davies, who now holds that position on the four home unions’ committee following Bill Beaumont’s election to World Rugby, last week spoke at the annual dinner of the Welsh Rugby Writers’ Association. His central point was that skill had become a major factor in Test rugby again, pointing out that the All Blacks had forwards who combined power with athleticism and awareness.
His hope was that Wales would follow. They tried to modify their power game last season, but crucial passes tended to end up in touch rather than in the hands of the target. Their results since defeating England in the World Cup and qualifying for the knockout stage have been, at best, below average: victories over Fiji, Scotland, France and Italy and a draw in Ireland outweighed by defeats to Australia, South Africa, England (two) and New Zealand (three).
Wales were the favourites for last season’s Six Nations, boasting the most experienced and settled squad that was, with the notable exception of Leigh Halfpenny, virtually injury-free. They were outsmarted by England at Twickenham, unable to think their way out of trouble in a ruinous opening half, and if they finished the stronger, emphasising the character they have developed under Gatland.
When it comes to all the elements that can be coached, strength and conditioning, organisation, defence (although they conceded an average of more than five tries a match in New Zealand), structured attack and kicking, Wales are up with the top-ranking teams. When it boils down to what coaches refer to as the final couple of inches, the moment when for a player it comes down to instinct rather than a gameplan, Wales struggle, strangely so for a country that for more than a century produced players who had an innate understanding of the game.
There was a moment during New Zealand’s second Test with the Wallabies when Australia looked capable of making up for their abject collapse the week before: they were trailing 15-9 and were making the All Blacks think. And then Barrett created an overlap by looping from the open-side, forcing the defending wing to gamble and shoot out of the line; the pace and strength of Julian Savea did the rest and a match that was in the balance was won.
Danny Cipriani performed the same trick for Wasps against Exeter last Sunday, creating an extra man and breaking a defence that had been all-smothering. It may have been something worked on in training but players like Barrett and Cipriani are always looking a few moves ahead. So too does Bath’s George Ford and it will be interesting to see what Gatland, for whom size has been a concern, makes of the England outside-half who is not a defender in the mould of Jonny Wilkinson or Owen Farrell.
There was a time when most of Wales’s first-class clubs had a Ford at outside-half, a calculating general who did not need a coach to tell him how to run a match. Gareth Davies was one, making his name in a Cardiff side that was armed with a bludgeon and a rapier, a team for all seasons. Players then learned their craft playing for local or second teams rather than being cloned at academies, lessons learned painfully at times.
If the Lions are to achieve only their second series victory in New Zealand, they will need to master the staples, but they will also need greater wit than Wales have shown recently. Gatland has become identified with Warrenball, a game based on strength and muscle, but his time at Wasps – when he had the crafty Alex King at 10 and Fraser Waters at 12 – will be more instructive as the New Zealand tour looms.
• This is an extract taken from The Breakdown, the Guardian’s weekly rugby union email. To subscribe, just visit this page and follow the instructions.
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