The last time Wales beat New Zealand was the same year Everest was first conquered. At no stage did it remotely look as if the hosts were about to scale that still-elusive peak under the bright Cardiff lights, particularly after losing the totemic Alun Wyn Jones to a shoulder injury inside the first quarter. The All Blacks were a speck on the horizon by the end, despite not always being at their fluent, all-dancing best.
Instead it was an evening to remember for the reliably influential Beauden Barrett, on the occasion of his 100th Test. Two interception tries from their silver-booted No 10 helped to rack up a record number of points ever conceded by Wales on home soil, equalling the widest margin of victory the All Blacks have managed in Wales since the fixture started in 1905. Seven tries to one, four of them in the last quarter, accurately reflected the difference in cutting edge between the respective teams.
Would it have made much difference had Wales’s English-based contingent been available? Probably not. Dan Bigger, Taulupe Faletau, Louis Rees-Zammit and co would have added a little more Lions quality but the players Wales really needed were hard grafters like Ken Owens and Josh Navidi to heap more pressure on the All Black set piece and their youthful back-row. Willis Halaholo, a Covid absentee, might also have added some midfield punch though Johnny Williams did score a deserved 61st-minute try and Johnny McNicholl and Owen Lane also did their best to add some energy.
As so often the pre-match Cardiff atmosphere was another plus, the swirling enthusiasm around the anthems almost tangible. Regardless of the depleted home line-up, which was missing around 20 players, there was more than a touch of gratitude in the air after all those grim Covid-infested months of empty seats and remote viewing. Even the matchday DJ on his decks did his best to appear cheerful when the crowd started belting out an old-school Tom Jones classic, an occupational hazard at this type of gig.
It was not much of a day, sadly, for Welsh rugby’s other hardy perennial. Alas poor Alun Wyn. From the moment he crumpled to the floor after tackling Jordie Barrett it was clear the collision was a significant one. It was the same joint that threatened to curtail his Lions tour and, while the post-match medical bulletins were relatively upbeat, it was a cruel way to mark his achievement of overhauling Richie McCaw as the world record cap-holder for a single major nation.
With him, for a while at least, departed Wales’s swagger and self-belief which never helps against this particular opposition. There is no such thing as a complacent young All Black, nor a glaring weakest link. More often than not, these visitors exude a collective certainty that eludes virtually every other team. It goes beyond confidence to the point where, regardless of the scoreline, it can look like religious conviction.
It helps, clearly, to have individuals with the ability of Barrett to make things happen in the blink of an eye. Barely three minutes had elapsed when Gareth Anscombe, looking to get his backline going for the first time, threw a midfield pass straight to his opposite number as if they were both, as was once the case, playing together for the junior All Blacks. Fairytale moments rarely come true in international rugby but running clear to score under the posts in Cardiff in your 100th Test is as close to rugby nirvana as anyone could hope for.
His second and final try, in the closing moments, was also served up on a plate by a misplaced pass, this time by McNicholl, leaving Wales to rue their own lack of ruthlessness in the visitors’ 22. The home side conceded eight penalties inside the first half hour alone, coughed up a couple of crucial attacking lineouts and ended up comfortably outscored by the Barrett family on their own. There is clearly a good reason why New Zealand have taken to starting the hulking Jordie Barrett at full-back instead of the quicksilver Damian McKenzie and it was evident again here, not least when Barrett made a midfield dent and the excellent Ardie Savea fed TJ Perenara for the score.
By the interval the All Blacks were at least down to 14 men after Nepo Laulala was sent to the sin-bin for catching a stooping Ross Moriarty with a shoulder but a damaged AC joint ended Moriarty’s evening permanently. There was barely a soul in the stadium anticipating a red-hot Welsh comeback in the second-half from 18-6 down.
Welsh fans were instead left were left to admire the brilliance of the talented young visiting winger Will Jordan, who scored a lovely individual chip and chase score from his own half as every defender in the vicinity seemed to hit a patch of quicksand. It was Jordan’s 16th try in just 11 Tests and will definitely not be his last. Dalton Papalii, another highly promising up-and-comer, Sevu Reece and Anton Lienert-Brown added further last quarter scores to extinguish Williams’ fleeting ray of light. Even when they take a while to get going on soft European tracks, the All Blacks are mighty hard to catch up the stretch.