Ryan Jones digests the latest in a long line of Welsh defeats to New Zealand
By Bruce Pope
BBC Sport at the Millennium Stadium
While Wales have still not managed to dislodge the 56-year-old New Zealand monkey from their backs, the signs are that the little fella might be loosening his grip.
The All Blacks deserved their 19-12 win in Cardiff on Saturday, their 21st in a row over Wales, but it was a close enough match that one little slice of luck or one different refereeing interpretation might have swung the result.
Wales coach Warren Gatland was adamant that All Blacks fly-half Dan Carter should have been sin-binned for what he believed was a swinging arm on Martin Roberts.
Gatland berates ref's decisions
Assistant coach Shaun Edwards, meanwhile, was almost apoplectic that no card had been shown by South African referee Craig Joubert, as Roberts seemed odds-on to score in support of a thrilling Shane Williams run.
"It's a break in the opposition 22, someone's there, if it's a legitimate tackle it's hopefully quick ball but it's a head-high tackle with a swinging arm and it should have been three points and a yellow card," Gatland said.
The Wales coach's opposite number, Graham Henry, was predictably sanguine.
"I saw it at the moment, I didn't look at the replay at all, but it seemed to me that he hit him around the chest and the other guy slid under," he said.
But there were several in the Kiwi camp who felt that centre Conrad Smith had scored a try despite the efforts of Wales wing Shane Williams, contrary to the findings of the television replays.
Then there was Alun Wyn Jones's breathtaking late interception in his own 22, the Wales lock galloping nearly to the Kiwi 22 and bringing the crowd to their feet in excitement and anticipation.
Perhaps if the Lions lock had passed left, perhaps if New Zealand debutant wing Zac Guildford had not read his pass right to bat it away from another Welsh hand.
Very small margins, but Tests between the best nations are usually settled that way.
Carter did not miss a place-kick all afternoon, scoring 14 of New Zealand's 19 points
What is not in dispute is that Wales limited New Zealand to just 19 points, the lowest total against them since 1978 when a team boasting the likes of JPR Williams, JJ Williams, Terry Holmes, Graham Price and Derek Quinnell were edged out 13-12.
Wales came just as close in 2004 at the Millennium Stadium, losing 25-26.
But Carter, as he so often is against Wales, was his usual menace with the boot.
It would have perhaps been fitting had the Canterbury fly-half passed Andrew Mehrtens' New Zealand Test points record of 967 against the team that he made his Test debut against in Hamilton in 2003, 64 Tests ago.
As it was, Carter the unstoppable points machine ended the day still two short of claiming Mehtens' crown for himself.
It is a total the Canterbury fly-half will undoubtedly pass in his next Test - whether that comes against Italy next week or England in a fortnight.
The world record held by Jonny Wilkinson - who stretched it to 1108 in England's loss to Australia on Saturday - must surely be now in the Kiwi's sights.
Carter did not miss a place-kick all afternoon, scoring 14 of New Zealand's 19 points, while his tactical use of the boot and distribution were exemplary.
And whether or not you think he should have been punished for his tackle on Roberts, there is no doubt that Carter's defensive qualities also had a major influence on the result - he was the difference between the two sides.
Gatland has booked New Zealand for some repeat business next June, with Tests in Dunedin and Hamilton, plus the now perennial Cardiff encounter next November.
With South Africa and Australia also regular opponents, it seems that Wales are on the best of learning curves as they build towards the 2011 World Cup.
Wales captain Ryan Jones said that "it was obvious for people to see" how the gap has closed, stressing that there is only disappointment at such a narrow loss rather then pride at having run New Zealand so close.
Surely someday soon Wales will re-set the old 1953 wind-up All Blacks win clock to a new timepiece, and allow Jones and his men to bask in the pride of knowing Wales belong with the best.
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