This was playing against history, trying to punch through a psychological barrier. Wales hasn’t beaten New Zealand for 66 years and there is an undeniable aura about them, a dark, all-black challenge, built on supreme athleticism and strength. So the Bronze Final, the third place play-off, would test the character of even the most experienced Welsh players such as captain Alun Wyn Jones and über hooker Ken Owens but also give an opportunity for young players to put up their hands. And there were plenty of those on the pitch.
For his very last game in charge Warren Gatland had been forced to ring the changes in an injury-depleted squad that looked like the roster list for a day clinic. But here was the rugby doctor who given Wales self belief, creating an era in which the team had shrugged off their underdog status – which often seemed to suit them, mind – and racked up a run of wins. They had won the Six Nations half a dozen times, gained three Grand Slams and reached the semi finals of two World Cups. But the All Black scalp was a trophy seemingly out of even Gatland’s reach. And in Steve Hansen’s last game in charge of New Zealand he wasn’t going to be giving anything away.
Josh Adams proved he had his Billy Whizz boots on right from the start, picking up a Patchell slip pass to head for the line but the All Blacks countered with intensity. Two minutes a second NZ penalty saw fly half Mo’unga’s kick hit the post. The huge loosehead prop Joe Moody made no such mistake when he cantered for the line, fending off a defender as he did so. Mo’unga’s conversion consolidated things.
The first scrum came as some relief after the laser intensity of the first five minutes, but not for the packs of course. Clever work on the blind side the ever dangerous scrum half Tomos Williams helped make some fast yards, backs streaming forward, including clever interplay between the Davies brothers. The black line held firm.
Some individual brilliance by full back Beauden Barrett saw him finding a gaping hole in the Welsh defence for too easy a try, duly converted.
A throw in in the corner saw Wales set up a spirited driving maul, then Josh Adams spinning unsuccessfully for the line. A further penalty instigated a passage of sustained forward pressure, Patchell almost finding a way through but then Hallam Amos rewarded the multi-phase play with a show and go before slipping into top gear to slide over the line, deftly converted.
Pushed into their own 22 the Blues’ Tomos Williams slalomed his way forward to set up a relieving kick by Patchell. Wales now had high octane in the tank, Adams claiming high ball and Patchell spreading those high, loping passes of his. The New Zealand penalty count started racking up and a kick under the posts earned Patchell a confident three points.
A Welsh scrum again settled nerves as it gave Wales another penalty and a kick by Rhys Patchell into the corner. A botched throw in gave the opportunity away but Wales were indubitably in the game. But right winger Ben Smith showed the All Blacks were in it too, picking up a deft pass from scrum-half Aaron Smith and evading five or six red defenders to roll over the tryline, swiftly converted. The All Blacks were becoming deeply assertive with a last minute try in the corner for storming Ben Smith, avoiding the clutches of Josh Adams. The resulting conversion saw an 18 point lead at half-time. It had been free-flow rugby, played at a lick and entertaining as hell.
Being eighteen points adrift is a sterling test of character and outside centre Ryan Crotty underlined that when he benefited from turn over ball to scamper over the line for a converted try in the opening two minutes of the second half, putting the All Blacks twenty five points ahead. Sonny Bill Williams and Crotty were proving predatory and the NZ forwards running with a crunch as the All Blacks piled on the pressure, resulting in a seeming hat trick try for Ben Smith, disallowed for a forward pass. Relief, if momentary.
Mistakes crept into Welsh play, Amos mis-kicking and Adams passing to an empty touch line. But Wales proved resolute and started to challenge with swift off loads and a strong carry by Aaron Shingler. Captain Alun Wyn Jones went off to rapturous applause: a hero leaving the field.
A scrum under the posts was a rare opportunity for Wales with Jake Ball rumbling forward and Shingler and young Rhys Carre in support. Josh Adams turned half-man, half-eel to wriggle under bodies for a try which rewarded a passage of play that saw everyone mucking in. Twenty minutes to go, NZL 35, Wales 17, time in the pressure cooker.
The reply came swiftly with Barratt proving an able aerialist, chasing the ball into the sky. A couple of penalties to the All Blacks led to useful put in in the Wales 22, but duly confounded and positive play by the red forwards saw phases building energetically, Dan Biggar making his presence felt with intelligent kicking and reading of the game. Jake Ball was a cannonball, Gareth Davies a kicking punt-gun but New Zealand could turn on a sixpence, Kieran Reid forcing Owen Lane to put the ball down behind the try line and a pressurising All Black scrum near the posts. With five minutes to go the pressure cooker was screaming loudly and fly half Richie Mo’unga slipped past Owen Lane and Dan Biggar for a try.
One last burst from the All Blacks secured the 40-17 win and concluded a game which underlined All Black supremacy and speed but there were plenty of young Welsh players who showed their desire to claim the future as their own. Warren Gatland’s face spoke achingly of disappointment as the TV cameras found him. Victory over New Zealand had once again proved elusive, a jinx that one day has to be broken.