All change for Wales and All Blacks in game of farewells
Warren Gatland will take charge of his last game among a host of player retirements
Wales’ head coach Warren Gatland has made nine changes for his side’s Rugby World Cup third place playoff against New Zealand. Photo: Billy Stickland /Inpho
Rugby World Cup third-place playoff: Wales v New Zealand
Kick-off: 9am Irish time, Friday. Venue: Tokyo Stadium. On TV: Live on Eir Sport and ITV.
This may be the most unwanted match of the tournament at the end of a trying week for both squads, but with the departing All Blacks head coach Steve Hansen and captain Kieran Read again becoming emotional in front of the media on their final pre-match press conference, there will be a fair amount of poignancy in the air.
As well as Hansen bidding farewell after 16 years’ working with the All Blacks, the last eight of them as head coach, this match will also mark Warren Gatland’s last game after a dozen years at the helm with Wales.
Accordingly, they’ve both sought to give farewells to some of their most notable and longest-serving players, while also affording games to those who’ve been on the periphery of things.
Read will lead the All Blacks for the 52nd and last time, thus eclipsing Sean Fitzpatrick’s 51 Tests as captain, with only Richie McCaw ahead of him, before relocating to the Toyota club here in Japan.
It will also be a final game for other departing veterans Ben Smith (who is joining Pau), Ryan Crotty and Sonny Bill Williams, as Hansen makes eight changes to the starting team which lost to England. Only Ardie Savea was ruled out with a meniscus tear which will sideline him for two months.
With just a five-day turnaround since their bruising defeat by South Africa, Gatland has made nine changes, several of them enforced as George North, Aaron Wainwright (both hamstring injuries), Leigh Halfpenny (head injury assessment) and Tomas Francis (shoulder) were all ruled out in addition to Liam Williams (who has returned to the UK for ankle surgery).
“It’s one of the positives, I suppose,” said Hansen ruefully of being able to afford some players a farewell game, and asked about this being his last pre-match press conference, said dryly: “I haven’t even thought about it but now that you mention it, it’s quite good, isn’t it? I don’t have to do any more of these (press conferences). There’s another positive – two of them.
“I don’t want to go into what I’m going to miss. There’s a game of footy and I’d really like us to talk about that. I don’t want to sound grumpy about that but if we start talking about me, it becomes about me and I don’t want it to be. The team’s more important.”
Hansen has been linked with the head coaching job at Toyota Verblitz, something which Eddie Jones prematurely announced on Monday, to which Hansen said: “Thanks, Eddie. I’m not actually coming to Japan to coach that team. I’ve got another job with that team, which I’ll talk about another day unless Eddie mentions it in his press conference again.
“I am excited about Saturday and then I’ll talk to you about what happens after that. I’m a reasonably laidback person so what happens next will be reasonably exciting too.”
Hansen was much more effusive when talking about Read’s contribution.
“He’s a special player. I’ve been lucky enough to work with him for a long, long time. We identified early that he’d be the next leader after Richie. He played a lot of rugby in a position that’s tough; he’s a charismatic leader, the boys and the management all love him, have a huge amount of respect for him.
“People won’t understand just how hard it was for him to come back from his back injury. To come back into the form he’s shown speaks volumes for him. He was really driven to do well and have the team do well and I think you can see the hurt when he’s spoken since (the semi-final defeat). But the same guy’s got up and led the team really well this week, so that’s a mark of his character.”
Facing into a bronze final for the first time since 2003, Hansen admitted: “It is different, you can’t sidestep that. There’s a lot of pain involved and a lot of hurt, but you’ve just got to make that work for you. (The) 2007 (defeat by France) has earned us two World Cups because it’s created a real pain that’s personal and deep inside you. Until you suffer that yourself and it becomes personal, you don’t know what people are saying.”
Wales have lost 30 times in succession since last beating the All Blacks 66 years ago and Hansen said: “It’s an important Test match for a number of reasons. One, we’ve just come off a loss. Two, it’s Wales and we’ve got a history with them that we need to keep feeding. We’ve got a legacy and a responsibility to that legacy.”
For Gatland, the last 11 of those losses have been on his watch and New Zealand are the only country Wales have not beaten in his command.
“The players are disappointed not to be in the final but have the chance to create a little bit of history against the All Blacks. It has been a long time, 66 years, not to beat a side. We have had success against every other nation. The All Blacks have been that elusive team we have not been able to conquer.
“Even though both teams are disappointed they are not involved in the big game. There is definitely something at stake – a lot of pride – and a victory for us would be pretty special.”
Gatland paid a moving tribute to all the Welsh players he has coached, his backroom staff and the Welsh public.
“It has been some experience. I have said on a number of occasions I never thought I would have been in Wales for 12 years. I was lucky enough to have had a couple of sabbaticals with the (British and Irish) Lions and that was good for me mentally.
“This is an end of an era for a lot of people,” added Gatland. “For a number of players this will probably be their last World Cup game so there are a lot of people involved, not just myself. Players potentially whether they carry on their international careers, a lot of them realise this could be their last World Cup opportunity.”
Wales: Hallam Amos; Owen Lane, Jonathan Davies, Owen Watkin, Josh Adams; Rhys Patchell, Tomos Williams; Nicky Smith, Ken Owens, Dillon Lewis; Adam Beard, Alun Wyn Jones (capt); Justin Tipuric, James Davies, Ross Moriarty.
Replacements: Elliot Dee, Rhys Carre, Wyn Jones, Jake Ball, Aaron Shingler, Gareth Davies, Dan Biggar, Hadleigh Parkes.
New Zealand: Beauden Barrett; Ben Smith, Ryan Crotty, Sonny Bill Williams, Rieko Ioane; Richie Mo’unga; Aaron Smith; Joe Moody, Dane Coles, Nepo Laulala; Brodie Retallick, Scott Barrett; Shannon Frizell, Sam Cane, Kieran Read (capt).
Replacements: Liam Coltman, Atu Moli, Angus Ta’avao, Patrick Tuipulotu, Matt Todd, Brad Weber, Anton Lienert-Brown, Jordie Barrett.
Referee: Wayne Barnes (England).
Overall head to head: Played 34, New Zealand 31 wins, Wales 3 wins.
Previous World Cup meetings: (1987, s/f) New Zealand 49 Wales 6. (1995, pool) New Zealand 34 Wales 9. (2003, pool) New Zealand 53 Wales 37.
Leading try scorers: Wales: Josh Adams 6. New Zealand: Jordie Barrett 3.
Leading points scorers: Wales: Dan Biggar 39. New Zealand: Richie Mo’unga 39.
Betting (Paddy Power): 7/1 Wales, 35/1 Draw, 1/12 New Zealand.
Handicap odds: (Wales +19pts) 10/11 Wales, 22/1 Draw, 10/11 New Zealand.
Forecast: New Zealand to win.