All Blacks v Wales: First Test Thriller

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The All Blacks have ‘dodged a bullet’ and come back strongest to beat Wales 39-21 in a thriller at Eden Park, but they had to survive a big scare to get the job done.

All Blacks v Wales: As It Happened

The talk over this week had been about which player would lead the All Blacks haka in 2016. Fans cheered when they saw Aaron Smith take up the role to perform the haka Ka Mate. Using the arrowhead formation, skipper Kieran Read drew strength from the history and tradition to lead off the All Blacks after a stirring rendition of the national anthems.

The game got started with a kick and Aaron Cruden was intent to keep the Welsh inside their own half. His first attempt at goal struck the right goalpost when trying to put the All Blacks into an early lead. The Welsh were caught napping with the loose ball and very nearly gave-up five points as the home side retained possession. Penalized for their second infringement at the breakdown, Wales didn’t escape a second kick as Cruden converted from 25-metres out, to give the All Blacks a 3-0 lead.

With their first period of genuine possession, Wales clearly showed they had ‘come to play’ and after putting Ben Smith under high-ball pressure, Wales recycled possession and came close to scoring in the left corner. Rhys Webb passed quickly, noticing his strength as the All Blacks had minimal numbers on the right, and the overlap proved too much for Waisake Naholo to defend alone. He couldn’t stop Welsh number eight Taullipe Faletau (Toby) scoring the opening try of the night. Dan Biggar just missed the conversion attempt, but the Welsh were out to a positive 5-3 lead.

The All Blacks answered back immediately, the ball sent out to Naholo who gained metres and thanks to a piece on individual brilliance by Cruden, the All Blacks first-five spotted Julian Savea unmarked in the left corner. He sent a brilliantly weighted cross-field bomb across which the big winger caught perfectly, to score his 39th test try and put the All Blacks back into the front 8-5.

Despite a question over a high tackle in the air from the kickoff, match referee Wayne Barnes didn’t award the All Blacks a penalty. His overall work was fair to be honest and his interpretation caught the home side off-guard too often.

Smith made up for an earlier error under the high ball, taking a ball inside his half and charging downfield after sneaking through the Welsh chargers. Cruden took possession in support, linking well before passing to Naholo who couldn’t be stopped on his charge to the line. Cruden’s conversion and the All Blacks extended their lead to 15-5.

Biggar inched Wales closer 15-8 after his side was awarded a penalty just inside the All Black half, but the visitors were beginning to fall off tackles and were only saved by All Black handling errors. Biggar kicked his second penalty of the night to make it four-point game, as the penalty count began to favor the visitors.

Naholo nearly scored his second with another big charge downfield but lost control of the ball trying to step past the last line of defence. He had good and bad periods in the first half but All Blacks coach Steve Hansen was happy with his work,

After a strong first half by Welsh fullback Liam Williams, which included several clean breaks of All Black tackles, he would be a major part of a big moment for Wales. Breaking through two defenders easily, Williams passed to Webb in support and the Welsh had their second try, and the lead of the match. Biggar converted and Wales were up 18-15.

Wales pressure continued near the end of the first half and on attack, the ball spilled loose in an Aaron Smith attempted tackle, falling behind the All Blacks line. Despite replays clearly showing Cruden applying pressure to the ball behind the All Black tryline, TMO George Ayoub awarded Wales a controversial attacking five-metre scrum. Staunch defence by the All Blacks on their own try line kept the Welsh from scoring a decisive late try in the first half, but the Welsh went into the shed with an 18-15 lead.

Welsh centurion Allun Wyn Jones took a big knock to the head as the second half began, and down by three-points, the All Blacks injected the typically-impactful Beauden Barrett into the match. Failing to clear with an easy kick, the Welsh then fumbled under the high-ball return and handed the home team possession in an attacking part of the field. Cruden tried his second high cross-kick of the night, this time to Naholo, but the right winger couldn’t make a clean catch, accidentally knocking the ball over the touch line.

Cruden continued an impressive night out in Auckland, almost scoring for the All Blacks himself when the Welsh kicked possession away again. Cruden threw a dummy before stepping through two Welsh defenders, being tackled only inches from the try line. The scores were drawn even when the All Blacks were awarded a penalty in the red zone, allowing Cruden to slot another easy three points to make it 18 points all [Crudens kicking was sharp but not perfect, with just 6/9 attempts]

With 50-minutes gone in the match, Biggar had two attempts at putting Wales into the lead, while George North nearly scored some points of his own after coming out of nowhere to charge at the line. Biggar landed his second penalty of the half, and the Welsh went ahead 21-18. Hometown hero Patrick Tuipulotu was subbed in for the All Blacks as the home side looked to answer immediately back with the crowd behind them, but constant penalties were halting progress of a comeback, and giving Wales field position. When a penalty went the All Blacks way 50-metres out from the posts, Cruden had a chance to even the scores again, but the 27-year old didn’t have the distance or the direction.

After being set free by Jerome Kaino, Naholo was stopped in the corner by a committed Welsh defence that continued to keep the All Blacks out for long periods. Ardie Savea came off the bench to make his All Blacks debut, and a well deserved one after two impressive seasons of Super Rugby with the Hurricanes. The flanker made an immediate impact, charging from the back of the maul and putting the All Blacks onto the front foot. Wales were penalised, Aaron Smith tapped quickly and handed to Naholo who scored his second try of the night, catching the Welsh napping, and it cost them the lead of the match. Cruden converted to put the All Blacks to a 25-21 lead.

The All Blacks began to control possession and field territory, and it wasn’t long until they were knocking on the door of the Welsh try line. With numbers of burn, thanks to quick thinking by Smith, the ? All Black captain Kieran Read scored under the posts to increase the home sides lead. Following Cruden’s conversion, Wales found themselves down 31-21. After over a year away from International Rugby, Cruden continued to lead the All Blacks around the park, but a rare mistake on the night saw TJ Perenara denied a try as replays showed a forward pass. Wales pounced on the mistake immediately, and it looked like Faletau had scored his second try of the night, but the TMO deemed that the Welsh runner had been in front of the ball carrier.

This ended a frantic, yet confusing 5-minutes of rugby where both the All Blacks and Wales were denied tries from TMO reviews. Seta Tamanivalu came off the bench as the All Blacks put both their debutantes on the field with just over five-minutes to play.

The Welsh refused to say die, and with an attacking five-metre scrum were set to throw all their set play tactics at the All Blacks in a match that will be remembered as a thriller. The All Blacks were penalized, and after taking a quick tap, Wales then lost possession trying to score and the All Blacks were fortunate to escape. Veteran lock Brodie Retallick (pictured) had an impressive second half, with three crucial offloads after a quiet beginning half of the game.

His experience proving paramount in the latter stages as he is a quality 80 minute footballer. Naholo had one last shot at a hat-trick, from 60-metres out with clear space he attacked but he just didn’t have enough pace to outrun Welsh defenders. Replacement All Black hooker Nathan Harris, returned to the 23-man squad and had the final say of the game, scoring the All Blacks fifth try (the second of his International career) It put the nail on the coffin and gave the score a gloss. Cruden converted and concluded the All Blacks first test of the year, at 39-21.

All Blacks v Wales: First Test Thriller

All Blacks 39

(Tries: Julian Savea, Waisake Naholo 2, Kieran Read, Nathan Harris. Penalties: Aaron Cruden 2, Conversions: 4

Wales 21

(Tries: Taullipe Faletau, Rhys Webb,  Penalties: Dan Biggar 3,  Conversions: 1

“Main photo credit”

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