A few nights ago I was lucky enough to get tickets to the Wales vs. New Zealand match at the Millennium Stadium. This game is like the Super Bowl for Wales, the entire nation rallies together for a chance, a hope of beating the All Blacks, the greatest team in the world. Roughly 80,000 people attend the game (sold out) and the streets of Cardiff are shut down and taken over by rugby fans from across the UK. The Welsh team runs onto the pitch amidst fireworks and flame throwers that shoot 50 foot flames towards the sky (yes, that’s real).
This game marks Richie McCaw’s 100th match, a record for the All Blacks. Our seats, miraculously, were a mere three rows back from the posts the All Blacks attacked in the first half. Sonny Bill Williams kicked a ball during warm ups that landed a few feet from my seat, and he actually looked at me and gestured to throw it back. I let a little boy have the honor, but it took a lot of restraint. We couldn’t have been closer to this incredibly talented team. A team that, when I played at Norwich, we had modeled ourselves after. A few seconds before the kickoff, it occurred to me that Wales had to play a team that nearly everyone in the world believed to be the best. How do you prepare for that game? Even more complicated, how do you beat them?
I won’t reveal the outcome (although it’s all over rugby news), because the final score in no way reflects the game that was played. In actuality, I’d suggest skipping the final 12 minutes entirely. The outcome creates a much better match to watch. Three things struck me as important elements of the winner’s game. Kicking, Defense, and Respect. The first half’s score relies entirely on penalty kicks. While I am obviously not a kicking expert (yet!), I can recognize that a strong kicker(s) can be a powerful weapon. Both sides demonstrate this in the game.
The defensive game that the Welsh team played is the best I’ve seen from them all season, and while it’s not always pretty, it is very effective against the All Blacks. Defense can be a simplified strength, and this game shows how basic defense can be: build a connected wall, launch hard, drive through your tackle, repeat. Both Wales and New Zealand show incredible patience in defense. I believe this to be the reason Wales was able to keep the game so close.
Respect was obviously given by both teams towards the other. NZ was careful not to underestimate this tiny nation’s power. Wales went into the match knowing that the mass of the world believed them to be the underdogs. The most important part of their game was in giving the All Blacks the respect they deserved, and then through their play quickly demanding that respect be returned. They forced the All Blacks to play the game that they wanted to play. The greatest mistake a team could make is trying to play a game that you don’t know or aren’t great at. Playing your game, at your speed, with a defense that is entirely your own, is a winning mentality. The team that won clearly demonstrated a combo of all of these.