Waisake Naholo scored a brace of tries as the All Blacks battled to a 39-21 win over Wales in Auckland on Saturday. CRAIG LEWIS reports.
In the end, the result went the way almost everyone would have expected, but Wales certainly gave the world champs a considerable fright.
After 55 minutes, and against all expectations, Wales held on to a three-point lead. But as they’ve become so renowned for, the All Blacks finished as the stronger side and kept their composure when it mattered.
Three tries in the final quarter enabled New Zealand to ultimately salvage a positive result, but there’s no doubt the All Blacks will be far from satisfied with a rusty performance that was blighted by uncharacteristic errors.
By contrast, Wales should be well pleased with a gutsy effort that threatened to cause a major upset. As it is, Wales have never managed a win in New Zealand, while their last victory over the All Blacks came some 63 years ago.
Although the All Blacks made a purposeful start to the encounter, Wales responded superbly and scored the opening try in the ninth minute as No 8 Taulupe Faletau went over in the corner after an impressive multi-phase buildup.
It was an early indication that Wales had come to play, while the All Blacks were clearly and uncharacteristically out of sorts, with handling errors and defensive disorganisation enabling the visitors to make early inroads.
Matters seemed to be heading back to the predicted script when Aaron Cruden first created a try for Julian Savea with a well-weighted cross-kick before a beautiful break from Ben Smith enabled Naholo to go over unopposed in the 18th minute. But the home fans at Eden Park would have very little to cheer about for the remainder of the half.
With Wales playing with ferocious intent and disrupting the All Blacks’ ball at the breakdown, momentum decisively swayed in favour of the visitors, with errors and ill-discipline plaguing the performance of the hosts.
It was clear that the Kiwis were off their game, and Wales flyhalf Dan Biggar made them pay with two quick-fire penalties that reduced the deficit to just four points. With Wales riding a wave of confidence, fullback Liam Williams then slipped through a tackle and broke away before offloading to scrumhalf Rhys Webb, who went over to score and send the visitors into a shock 18-15 lead.
Looking well and truly rattled, the All Blacks would have welcomed the break, while just after the restart coach Steve Hansen made a statement when he subbed Savea and brought Beauden Barrett on as the hosts desperately looked for a way to shift the momentum back in their favour.
Cruden and Biggar traded penalties early on in the second half as Wales kept their noses in front, but as they’ve done so often in the past, the All Blacks gradually upped the intensity as they headed into the final quarter.
An extended period of pressure finally reaped reward when Aaron Smith took a quick tap and popped the ball to Naholo, who charged in on the angle and burst over to score. The All Blacks were back in front, and the complexion of the clash quickly began to change.
Indeed, there was a sense of inevitability when captain Kieran Read powered over to score in the 68th minute, and despite having spent much of the match on the back foot, the hosts were suddenly 11 points to the good.
With the final play of the game, debutant Nathan Harris went over to score and ensure the scoreline looked far more flattering for the All Blacks. But the fact remains, a win is a win.
All Blacks – Tries: Julian Savea, Waisake Naholo (2), Kieran Read, Nathan Harris. Conversions: Aaron Cruden (4). Penalties: Cruden (2).
Wales – Tries: Taulupe Faletau, Rhys Webb. Conversion: Dan Biggar. Penalties: Biggar (3).
All Blacks – 15 Ben Smith, 14 Waisake Naholo, 13 Malakai Fekitoa, 12 Ryan Crotty, 11 Julian Savea, 10 Aaron Cruden, 9 Aaron Smith, 8 Kieran Read (c), 7 Sam Cane, 6 Jerome Kaino, 5 Brodie Retallick, 4 Luke Romano, 3 Owen Franks, 2 Dane Coles, 1 Joe Moody.
Subs: 16 Nathan Harris, 17 Wyatt Crockett, 18 Charlie Faumuina, 19 Patrick Tuipulotu, 20 Ardie Savea, 21 TJ Perenara, 22 Beauden Barrett, 23 Seta Tamanivalu.
Wales – 15 Liam Williams, 14 George North, 13 Jonathan Davies, 12 Jamie Roberts, 11 Hallam Amos, 10 Dan Biggar, 9 Rhys Webb, 8 Taulupe Faletau, 7 Sam Warburton (c), 6 Ross Moriarty, 5 Alun Wyn Jones, 4 Bradley Davies, 3 Samson Lee, 2 Ken Owens, 1 Gethin Jenkins.
Subs: 16 Scott Baldwin, 17 Rob Evans, 18 Tomas Francis, 19 Jake Ball, 20 Ellis Jenkins, 21 Gareth Davies, 22 Gareth Anscombe, 23 Scott Williams.
Photo: Michael Bradley/AFP Photo