International Rugby League returned to the bright lights of London last weekend when Wembley Stadium played host to a double-header in the Four Nations championship 2011. Wales took on New Zealand in the opening fixture and with the Kiwis 250-1 on to win, few expected much from the young Welsh side, especially after a heavy defeat to England a week earlier. The last meeting between the two sides ended in a 22-50 Kiwi victory at the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff, a result Wales would be keen to avoid. However, despite a final score which appears on the surface to give the impression of an easy win, the Kiwis were made to work by a determined Welsh defence.
Wales got off to the worst possible start, however, with an early try from Jason Nightingale who got on the end of a kick-through and touched down in the corner; 0-4. The following 9 minutes saw Wales continually on the defensive as wave after wave of crunching Kiwi attacks reined in on the line. This pressure led to a second New Zealand try courtesy of full back, Kevin Locke, the first of two in the match for the inspirational young player; 0-8. Wales gathered themselves together and could have scored a try of their own had handling in the final tackle been more accurate. They were duly punished in the 30th minute as second row, Sika Manu, touched down in the far corner to take the score to 0-12. This try was converted brilliantly by Kiwi captain, Benji Marshall; 0-14.
More opportunities for Wales came and went. Despite Kiwi errors and a penalty count hugely in favour of the Welsh, a try never materialised as chance after chance went begging. Utility back, Elliot Kear, played a blinder throughout the entire match and was at the root of each move Wales made towards the Kiwi line. Before the half time hooter sounded Wales were once again made to pay for their inability to score as first, Sika Manu (30 mins) and then Gerard Beale (39 mins) scored to increase the Kiwis advantage yet further; both tries were converted by Marshall. Half time score Wales 0 - New Zealand 26.
The cynics were now out in force across the social networks, including Twitter where one post likened Iestyn Harris’ squad to a ‘pub team’. Well, never write of the Welsh (we know that from both rugby codes) and never write off a side brimming with young talent, many of whom were out to impress clubs in the close season. I cannot sit here as I write this report on the train back to south Wales and say I didn’t expect the floodgates to open and the Kiwis to run rampant in the second half. In fact, I’ll be honest and say I predicted the Kiwis to rack up 50 points. However, I always believed Wales would score. As it turned out, I was wrong on both counts, so I won’t be giving up my day job just yet!
The second half began much like the first with the Kiwis dominating the early exchanges and the Welsh having to defend. Then, the game turned in Wales’ favour through Kiwi mistakes and great passing skill. Yet again, however, chances went begging and despite 15 minutes of sustained pressure on the Kiwi line, no tries were scored. Worse was to follow as two more unanswered tries were scored by New Zealand; the first a second from Gerard Beale (duly converted by Benji Marshall), and then substitute Nathan Fien touched down in the far corner. With six minutes left to play the score stood at 0-36 and so it was to remain despite a last gasp attempt by Wales to touch down after they were awarded two penalties within 10m of the Kiwi try line. Final score Wales 0 – New Zealand 36.