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Page last updated at 18:55 GMT, Sunday, 28 November 2010

Winless Wales still pack punch

Mils Muliaina

Highlights - Wales 25-37 New Zealand

By Bruce Pope
BBC Sport Wales

November is usually a time for fireworks, but for Wales the past month was a bit of a damp squib.

Four Tests on home turf in Cardiff, no victories - stretching their winless run to seven matches - and ridiculed for a dire 16-16 draw against supposed minnows Fiji.

First came a 16-25 loss to Australia, then another close defeat 25-29 against South Africa, that stalemate with Fiji, rounded off by a 25-37 reverse to New Zealand on Saturday.

The mantra from the Wales camp for several seasons now - especially in the November clashes with the Tri-Nations big boys - has been "performance, performance, performance" with the odd "belief" thrown in along the way.

Those words tend to ring hollow after such a frustrating run of results. But in a month with little cause for celebration there does seem to be genuine grounds for optimism - at least up front.

Gatland rues missed chance

Wales' scrummage dominated all others this autumn apart from the Springboks, but achieved parity against a pack that still impressed in defeat to Scotland and went on to give England a bloody nose at Twickenham.

That Wales have an exceptional front-row in Gethin Jenkins, Adam Jones and hooker Matthew Rees is no revelation.

They are an all-British and Irish Lions unit after all, as comfortable in the loose as they are destructive in the tight, with the mantle of captaincy now sitting well on Rees' shoulders.

The power is also coming from behind, with Bradley Davies growing into the role of grunt man alongside his more lauded lock partner Alun Wyn Jones.

New Zealand assistant Steve Hansen, like Kiwi head coach Graham Henry a former Wales boss, suggested after beating Wales that their scrum had been treated unkindly by referee Alan Lewis.

Hansen may have had a point, with Mr Lewis not making allowances when players lost footing on the Millennium Stadium turf, which scuffed up horribly once again.

But his suggestion that the All Blacks were victims of their own attempts to contest opponents' put-ins seems disingenuous, and mildly insulting to the performance of Rees and company on Saturday.

Wales captain Matthew Rees plays 'peek-a-boo' with New Zealand fly-half Dan Carter in Cardiff
Wales captain Matthew Rees plays 'peek-a-boo' with New Zealand fly-half Dan Carter in Cardiff

"We can stop trying to put pressure on the opposition scrum so they stay up, we want to put pressure on them, but if they fall over all the time we're getting penalised," Hansen said.

"You can laugh at me when I say we'll stop doing it. We've tried talking to the referees but we're not making any headway."

One man who did make headway in the match was Dan Carter, who passed Jonny Wilkinson's Test points haul of 1,178 to become the new world record holder.

It was not a vintage display for the 28-year-old Canterbury fly-half, especially with the boot as he missed four out of his first five kicks at goal, but he and his team had enough in the locker to see off Wales for the 24th time in a row.

Richie McCaw led from the front as usual and his back-row colleague Jerome Kaino was superb.

While Wales' two 22-year-old breakaways, Dan Lydiate and Sam Warburton, could not quite match the All Blacks pair's support and ball-carrying, they did put in hugely impressive shifts at the breakdown.

The penalty count was 17-8 in Wales' favour, partly from the scrum but also reflecting the work being done on the floor.

This autumn, Lydiate and Warburton have proved themselves genuine international talents against some of the world's best.

"I've wanted to play against [McCaw] ever since I started watching him," said Blues open-side Warburton.

"He was everywhere. I couldn't believe it that everywhere I went, I looked up and he was there.

"He made it a tough day, but it was a great experience, and I am really chuffed I have got it under my belt."

Add Martyn Williams, Jonathan Thomas and Andy Powell - who all finished the match against the All Blacks - and the starting number eight on Saturday, Ryan Jones, and Wales coach Warren Gatland has that magic thing: options and strength in depth.

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Alas, that is not the case in the backs. The injuries that have left the cupboard bare this November could easily strike again when Wales begin their 2011 World Cup campaign against the Springboks on 11 September.

The emergence of George North has been one plus - the 18-year-old Scarlets wing scoring two tries on debut against South Africa - but Gatland admits that Wales badly missed the absentees.

He is also keen for Gavin Henson to restart his rugby career, once Saracens' new recruit finishes his Strictly Come Dancing duties, of course.

"We've got some quality backs to come back into the Six Nations with Shane Williams and Jamie Roberts, Leigh Halfpenny hopefully back," Gatland said.

"Maybe the guy [Henson] who's doing a bit of dancing might be fit and available as well!

"That's going to give us some strength in depth in our backline and a few of the youngsters in the forward pack are really starting to step up."

Roberts' return, for one, would provide Wales with a centre who has the size and the discipline to run straight lines and commit defenders - a quality so lacking of late.

Wales' backline has all too often crabbed one way, crabbed the other way - perhaps paused to let a big lad take it forward - then continued in its lateral way before losing patience and gifting possession away.

Henry hails 'composed' Kiwis

Overlaps have also been wasted by long passes being flung out without opposition players being fixed by runners first - a case of drift defence good, drift attack very bad.

Then there is the kicking. Oh dear. The ill-judged grubbers have been bad enough, but poor clearances have seen Wales punished heavily by teams who thrive on broken-field play.

On Saturday, Lee Byrne's missed kick to touch was gleefully seized upon by New Zealand, who led just 13-12 at the time and had Daniel Braid in the sin-bin, and ended with Hosea Gear scoring his second try of the match.

Afterwards, New Zealand boss Henry made it very clear that Wales have been worked out - predictable in attack and predictably coughing up enough errors to turn into a match-winning points total.

"I thought they played the way we thought they'd play," said Henry.

"They played with a lot of character, they threw everything into it and that's they way we thought it would happen... exactly the way we thought they'd play."

So with the Six Nations now two months away, it is backs to the drawing board for Wales, but top marks for forwards thinking.



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see also
Rees urges Wales to stop mistakes
28 Nov 10 |  Welsh
Wales point fingers at themselves
27 Nov 10 |  Welsh
Wales 25-37 New Zealand
27 Nov 10 |  Welsh
Wales 16-16 Fiji
19 Nov 10 |  Rugby Union
Wales 25-29 South Africa
13 Nov 10 |  Welsh
Wales 16-25 Australia
06 Nov 10 |  Rugby Union
All Blacks magic: New Zealand rugby
21 Oct 08 |  Rugby Union
Wales' rugby fixtures
26 Jun 07 |  Welsh
Wales rugby results archive
15 Oct 03 |  Welsh
BBC Sport Wales coverage
03 Oct 11 |  Wales


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