New Zealand vs Wales
Pool D Clash Rugby World Cup
Telstra Stadium, Sydney
Sunday, 2 November 2003 (10:35pm NZT)
Referee: (South Africa)
Fulltime: New Zealand 53 Wales 37
Halftime: New Zealand 28 Wales 24
"You never beat Wales, you just score more points than them." So said famous All Black flanker and one-time captain Ian Kirkpatrick in the early 1970s. In recent years, this has become at best a nostalgic comment, at worst something of a joke amongst rugby devotees in this country. But on Sunday night, after years of traumatic defeats, the Red Dragons of Wales finally pushed the All Blacks to the limit, to the considerable unease of All Black fans everywhere.
The eight-tries-to-four defeat of one of the All Blacks' greatest rivals flattered the New Zealand team. While they had greater staying power, Wales looked at times to be heading for one of the greatest upsets in rugby history. After beating Italy 70-7, Canada 68-6 and crushing Tonga 91-7 last weekend, that would have been a comedown for the All Blacks of disastrous proportions. They went through that four years ago and simply could not afford to let it happen again.
So they didn't, and they now go into a quarter-final next weekend against South Africa, rather than England, if they had lost. But losing was a real prospect at one point. It was not a good feeling for this correspondent, watching from a relative's living room in suburban Dunedin.
The All Blacks missed tackles, were lax on defence and against a fired-up Welsh squad, were open to all sorts of missed opportunities. To their credit, they were able to use the last 15 minutes to their advantage with late tries to Carlos Spencer, Doug Howlett and Aaron Mauger settling the final margin beyond doubt.
Yet, it was disconcerting to see the All Blacks, with their top squad, struggling against what was considered a Welsh B team. Were they complacent? Maybe. There were too many lost lineout throws and casual backline tackling. It was not a happy sight to see Reuben Thorne's fifteen concede gaps on the line, allowing tries through that normally should not have happened.
On the other hand, Wales were breathing fire and the tries to Mark Taylor, New Zealand import Sonny Parker, skipper Colin Charvis and Shane Williams, accompanied by some good kicking by Stephen Jones (if at times relatively easy shots) were quite a sight to watch, if one wanted to be detached about it.
For the All Blacks, there were some fine moments, Rocokoko's two tries, particularly his 40-metre run,marked a fine comeback. Ali Williams' pick-up of a Carlos Spencer up-and-under on the Welsh line to crash down for the try was inspired.
Leon Macdonald's kicking was steady, if not perfect, on the night. His goals were an important, if not vital factor in the final result.
For the Welsh, though, it must have been the weight of history on their shoulders that produced one of their great performances. After years of being easy-beats (after further years of being feared opponents) it was stirring for the crowd to watch a proud rugby nation almost produce their first win over the All Blacks since 1953.
Whether they can come back with a similar effort against England next week may, on the face of it, be more debatable. But stranger things have happened. Will there be more than one All Black fan hoping they do so?
Reuben Thorne and John Mitchell played down the Welsh minnow-like reputation before the game and it was just as well, as they didn't look too foolish in the aftermath. But South Africa now looms. If there is any opponent who can knock the All Blacks out at quarter-final stage, it's them. Wales have hopefully done the All Blacks a favour. They need to be at maximum efficiency next weekend and hopefully beyond. If ever they need our support, it's now.