“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, therefore, is not an act, but a habit”
If rugby matches were an hour long Wales would be among the best. If rugby matches were an hour long, you get the feeling, the All Blacks would find a way of winning after 59 minutes.
On Saturday the world number one and current World Champions rolled into Cardiff like a black hulking beast. The alpha male among rugby giants; often challenged, rarely beaten and yet to be overthrown.
For Wales it was the story were are all fed up of hearing and tired of telling; another game against one of the Southern Hemisphere’s big three and another lead slips from their grasp at the death. To quote Bill Murray, “It’s Groundhog Day…again.”
For 67 minutes Wales were every bit as good as their counter parts, at times they were better. The blitz defence worked as well as it ever has; Alun Wyn Jones played the spot-blitz like an experienced outside centre and Jamie Roberts led the way in stifling Sonny Bill Williams.
Sonny Bill is one of rugby’s most creative centres with the ability to unlock the tightest of defence, but Wales smothered him to cut off the oxygen to All Blacks attack. Jake Ball and Dan Biggar completed 12 tackles each – an incredible figure for a second row and outside half – and Roberts himself made ten. It seemed Wales’ defence may have been enough to secure an historic win for the first time in over half a century.
However, it was to be a death by a thousand cuts. Wales made 121 tackles; few of them without bruising ferocity and each chipping away at the body. Meanwhile, New Zealand carried for 495m; almost enough to go tryline to tryline five times. Whilst most of the metres made never threatened to lead to tries, each tackle sapped more energy and every linebreak meant extra metres to compete at the ruck through the gate.
Slowly but surely Wales were emptying the tank. By the time the last quarter of an hour rolled around Wales were running on empty. Out on their feet. Having restricted New Zealand to a single try for the majority of the game, the flood gates opened with 12 minutes remaining on the Millennium Stadium clock with the All Blacks ran in four more. It was the toll of the effort Wales had put in told.
Wales had exhausted themselves in their exertions, whilst New Zealand had managed the game to perfection. It wasn’t just the possession that wore Wales down, but also the territory – the All Blacks owning 55% of each. New Zealand didn’t just play rugby, they played it in the right areas and gave Wales little scope for errors. They returned kicks in numbers and when they kicked, they did so to compete forcing Wales to play where they didn’t want to and under pressure they could have done without.
The large difference between points on the scoreboard betrayed the parity Wales enjoyed on the pitch for much of Saturday evening before aching muscles and bones slowed the Welsh defence.
Part of the problem wasn’t just the broken bodies that remained on the field, it was the ones that replaced them. Whilst New Zealand’s subs hit the ground running, those of Wales stumbled and couldn’t keep pace.
After coming off the bench Scott Baldwin overthrew at the lineout, James Hook put the ball out on the full from kick off with his very first touch and Mike Phillips was charged down by Kieran Read after he dithered with a kick from the ruck. It was a stark contract to Rhys Webb and Dan Biggar, both of whom had controlled the game for Wales when on the field.
Not that those in the starting XV were without blame for the defeat. George North barely got going. His one chance of glory was undone by an awkward bounce that just took the ball past his foot as he hacked at it with the try line waiting. Richard Hibbard’s tackling was as bone-crunchingly solid as you would expect, but his throwing struggled to reach his intended target.
One man who was in the spotlight was Leigh Halfpenny; Liam Williams’ rise in form is in correct correlation to Halfpenny’s decline. Halfpenny did little to invert this form. His success rate in the tackle was just 25% - making one of four – while his decision to pick and go from the base of a ruck 10 metres from his own line is far beyond comprehension.
Again Halfpenny’s saving grace was his flawless kicking, but with Biggar continuing to prove his ability from the kicking tee this is becoming less of a USP for the Gorseinon man. Nobody could ever doubt Halfpenny’s commitment to his nation, but in the countdown to the World Cup he needs to rediscover the form and consistency that made him one of the first names on Gatland’s team sheet.
American football coach and human quote machine Vince Lomardi once said, “Winning is a habit. Unfortunately so is losing.” This country is in a bad habit when it comes playing the Southern Hemisphere’s big three at our national sport. We’ve become adept at losing our favourite game, it’s time to break the habit.