With the Squad now used for the first Test of the series in New Zealand, who are the undeniable key Welsh men that must now be crucial to the sides success over this three match series? Down 1-0, Robert Rees looks over the Wales side and how they can go into Wellington with a positive mindset.
Up front is where the winners of these matches are for me. It always is, but it will be decided here with New Zealand because they have their key men there, with the likes of Sam Cane, Brodie Retallick and Jerome Kaino. The strength for New Zealand (NZ) is in that tight-contest, and the key Welsh men in the front-on battle in the tight will be Ross Moriarty and Gethin Jenkins, who [admittedly] has had recent scrummaging problems, but the latter does carry superb experience with him.
Men like Jenkins are a massive threat to the All Blacks over the ball. Hopefully Gethin will solidify the scrum, will motivate the men around him like Moriarty. Big Gethin may too cause his opposite number Owen Franks many problems, as Gethin could be better around the park then the big NZ player, with a possible advantage ‘over’ the ball. Rob Evans was used from the bench for the opening test, fresh from his first international try against England, so Wales are not short of key men in the loose-head propping position on tour.
The centurion Alun Wyn Jones (pictured) is a huge influence on whether the Welsh team does well or not on this trip. His epic work rate and experience all over the park must be rubbing off on his team mates. He is sure to keep the set piece in order, will maintain order in the tight situations (see first test) and his leadership skills will make him undoubtedly the most key welsh man in the eyes of many of the public.
Barring injury, AWJ could be the deciding factor in a match being close or not. Fellow lock Luke Charteris is another man to keep an eye on, only missing single figure amount of tackles out of over 200 [tackles] over this years season.
Facing them both is Brodie Retallick. That will be a difficult prospect to mark up against, but fans hope that Wales can measure up to Retallick, and to Sam Whitelock, Luke Romano and the new squad member Ardie Savea.
The back row is a key match-up in any tie, but more so with the retirement of the 149 cap Richie McCaw from international rugby in 2016. He may leave a ‘gaping hole’ in any side, but with future All Black captain Sam Cane ready at the helm in that key position, it will be no easy task for the Welsh captain (and key man) Sam Warburton over these next two testseparate to counter. The shoulder injury does not seem to be affecting Warburton, even making an appearance in the midweek friendly game against the Chiefs.
Across the entire field, most fans are looking forward to the battle at number eights. In the Welsh corner, Toby Faletau v Keiran Read, the NZ captain, former International Player of the Year–that is the man to measure yourself against. Both are in scintillating form and both lead the way in the battle of the eights this week. Both [literally] scored in the opening test; only Toby’s try was called back for offside.
Key Welsh Men
Faletau has his fans as much as he has his critics in Wales. ‘He plays too loose’ or that he is ‘missing when he needs to be on the tight forwards’. Opinions are scattered, but after the first tests results, Faletau only needs to improve a small percentage, and he too maybe in contention (like Read has been) for World Rugby ‘Player of the Year’.
The first test has been fought. The scoreline rather flattered the All Blacks many feel, a hard game for most of the Wales players. There are still many individual match-ups to be enjoyed over this series though, and many key Welsh men will demonstrate their strengths over this next fortnight of rugby. How that transpires onto the field is anyone’s business.
Going into Wellington, there is still much to play for and several key Welsh men will influence this series results, no doubt.
The kicking game at ten has, and will be crucial as Aaron Cruden showed with that cross-field kick assist, to show he has more than one string to his bow. Of course, both himself and Dan Biggar found reasonably high success with the tee, only one kick from Cruden looking ordinary. Kicking points will be the deciding factor with around 30-40% of the total points scored in a game on average coming from kicks of some sort. A poor day at the office will more than likely contribute to the outcome of the last two tests.
As the first game showed, both sides appear to want to play fast and open and there are three wingers on the pitch that are world class and will seriously cause a threat. North has been the key welsh man there and J.Savea and Naholo for New Zealand. All played very well in the first test, the Kiwi pairing showed their class bagging three tries between them. So much open space will appear in these vast open games and these big, fast men will influence an outcome somewhere along the line.
It must be noted however that George North now has a serious injury worry and will now miss the rest of the tour with a torn hamstring. This is a huge blow for Wales, losing a key man so early on. Coach Warren Gatland will announce his replacement in a number of hours, and the wing position will be one to examine closely.
The centre roles for NZ were highlighted as being less experienced and a fairly new combination prior to the first test with many seeing an opportunity for J.Davies and J.Roberts to run at Malakai Fekitoa and Ryan Crotty. Some assuming they would make some sizeable gains here but this never really materialised. This midfield battle will be a key area to watch, to see if any yards are gained or lost by either side. Field position is, and was crucial to victory in the first test, as it will be in the second and third.
It has to be said however that the key Welsh men for me must be the more experienced players who can ‘lead from the front’. That is where the game can be won, where a series can still be won. This side will, and should be able to step it up a gear when the going bets tough. The work-on’s for this week must be the final 20 minutes. That is an area that in the NZLvWAL history, Wales has not done very well at.
Something the All Blacks did significantly better than Wales during the first test at Eden Park.
“Main photo credit”