Nothing but praise for Wales despite heavy defeat

 

The Welsh players turned to the crowd after the final whistle and, for a moment, appeared to be contemplating a lap of honour. Unlike England the previous week, they resisted the temptation, not only because they had suffered a record home defeat but because they were too exhausted to break into even a jog. "The pace of the first 20 minutes was the quickest I have ever experienced on a rugby field," said the Wales captain Gwyn Jones. "It was unremitting, relentless and hard. We stuck at it, showed a lot of determination and played some good rugby in the second half."

It was all over by then. Wales had talked in the build up to the match about taking on the All Blacks at their own game and they did but instead of running in tries they found themselves trying to charge down conversions.

Two optimistic long-range attacks ended in failure and the All Blacks pounced on the mistakes with alacrity, like Alan Shearer gratefully latching on to a wayward back pass. The game was over almost as soon as it had started. The Wales coach Kevin Bowring delivered his sermon afterwards, anxious as ever to sample heaven's bread. "We made mistakes under pressure. Perhaps we tried to play rugby when we should not have but we only lost 17-7 in the second half. We need to play against the best if we are to improve our skill level." And a happy time will be had by all in South Africa next summer. Bowring was in subdued, almost sombre mood. In contrast, his players were upbeat, defending their decision to run the ball from deep positions from the outset. If Bowring questioned the strategy, his charges were unapologetic.

Nigel Walker, who became only the 11th Welshman to score a try for his country against the All Blacks in 92 years, denied the accusation of early recklessness. "It is easy to look back and say this or that was a mistake but we wanted to keep the ball in hand and not kick it to them," he said. "We needed more men behind the ball but we kept at it and finished strongly. If the defeat did not justify doing handstands down the Strand, neither did it see us reaching for the razor blades. We showed we are on our way to being competitive by the 1999 World Cup."

There was talk of a sneak punch delivered by a Welsh forward but the New Zealand coach John Hart, so downbeat and morose after the victory over England at Old Trafford when he pointed the finger at Martin Johnson, was not this time in cite-seeing mood. "I thought Wales were terrific," he said. "They were positive and had a great attitude. I went into the dressing room afterwards and told them so." Thanks, boys, for playing into our hands.

The New Zealand full-back Christian Cullen, who scored three tries to take his tally to 21 in 21 Tests, was not looking forward to training this week. "I do not think the coach will be very happy," he said. "We made too many mistakes and I am sure John will have something to say about that in training. Wales came at us and tackled well." The New Zealand tour captain Sean Fitzpatrick, who came on 20 minutes from the end to win his 92nd cap, was cornered by a Welsh journalist as he was about to leave Wembley.

Sean, you played against Wales in 1988, when they were stuffed twice, and again in 1989, are they any better now? "That's not really relevant, mate. I just don't know." Well how about the 1995 World Cup, that was only two years ago. "Look, mate, Wales gave it their all but I do not really look at how teams play against us." What do Wales have to do to get back to the top? No answer: it was like asking Ryan Giggs what Barnsley had to do to catch Manchester United. Don't know and don't care.

Fitzpatrick eventually found a gap and disappeared. The questions would have been better put to his father, Brian, a wing who won three caps in 1953. His first appearance came against Wales, the last occasion on which they emerged triumphant from a meeting with the All Blacks. Son Sean's five appearances against Wales have seen New Zealand record victories by 49, 45, 25, 25 and 35 points. But it was be nice to Wales day. Praise gushed from the mouths of Wembley officials who had never heard a crowd applaud an order to stay off the pitch. They had just heard the result from Twickenham, but never mind. It was a grand day out, 70 years on from the last Welsh Diaspora to Wembley when Cardiff City shot down Arsenal in the FA Cup final. But just as the Welsh team is not what it was, so the knowledge of its supporters has declined. "We only have one weakness in our team," said a red scarf to a New Zealander in one of the cattle-trucks which edged their way to Wembley Park. "Nigel Walker. Nice lad but he cannot tackle."

There were only two seminal moments for Wales. When Jonah Lomu stopped dead when confronted by Scott Gibbs and Gareth Thomas knocked him backwards and when Jeff Wilson, who had three times been shown the outside by Walker and had been caught every time, decided to kick ahead rather than take him on again but two men do not make a team.