New Zealand still to hit peak in Wales
By Karen Bond
New Zealand have wracked up 173 points and conceded only 19 – including a solitary try – en route to the IRB Junior World Championship semi-finals, prompting some to suggest that the favourites have yet to really be tested in the inaugural tournament.
They have beaten Tonga 48-9, Ireland 65-10 and Argentina 60-0 to top Pool A with the latter scoreline perhaps the most surprising of all, but co-coach Russel Hilton-Jones is quick to shoot down any suggestion that they’ve had an easy passage.
“It was a surprise [the Argentina score], we though it would be a bit tighter than that on the scoreboard and at half time it was only 15-0,” insisted Hilton-Jones, whose side face host nation Wales at Rodney Parade in Newport on Wednesday at 19:00 local time.
“It was a fierce game and we certainly scored more tries in the second half that blew it out a bit, but it was really a physical game and we thought that was good preparation leading into a semi-final.
“I guess at this stage we haven’t had a real arm wrestle, where it has been a really tight game to see how we react underneath that sort of pressure, but physically we have been tested and there is no doubt of that during the course of this campaign.
“I think we are really confident that we are in a good zone to play well, but really the players need to keep lifting the bar, particularly coming into the semi-final.”
Worryingly for Wales, the side that stand between New Zealand and a place in the inaugural final at Swansea’s Liberty Stadium on Sunday, Hilton-Jones and his captain Chris Smith both believe we haven’t seen the best they have to offer yet.
“I think we will have to play better than we have up to now to win the tournament and that is our long-term goal and certainly we will have to play better than we have up to now to beat Wales,” added Hilton-Jones.
“We placed a lot of emphasis on the physicality against Argentina and I think we lifted the level to a really high standard. We have got some amazing athletes out wide, but we really need to earn the right to move the ball wide by confronting teams up front and getting good position.”
Smith, who lifted the last IRB Under 19 World Championship as New Zealand captain in Belfast last year, echoed the thoughts of his coach, only to well aware that to peak too early in a tournament is not an ideal scenario in any case.
“I don’t think we have. By no means have we been the perfect team over these last three games, there has been plenty of things that we have been working on and we want to put in place tomorrow that haven’t been right in the last three games. Hopefully we can improve again tomorrow and put out a good performance.
“I think that is a huge thing in tournaments like this, you have got so many games over a short period, if you are the perfect product in game one it is not necessarily going to be the best thing going into the business end of the tournament.
“We have been happy with how we have gone, but having said that we are really happy with where we are at now and moving forward where we are going to be.”
That is not to say though that Hilton-Jones and Smith will be underestimating the threat that Wales, backed by home support, will pose to their dreams of being crowned the first ever IRB Junior World Championship winners.
“Our guys have a lot of respect for the Welsh side,” explained Hilton-Jones. “A number of our players were back from last year’s Under 19 like Wales are I guess and there is some real respect there and there is no fear of complacency because we know unless we are on top of our game that the Welsh side are capable of knocking us over.”
Smith, the 20-year-old North Harbour flanker, led New Zealand to two victories over their Welsh counterparts in the IRB Under 19 World Championship 2007, including a 36-12 victory in the semi-finals and knows what to expect.
“A passionate crowd, physical forwards,” he predicted. “I think they play like a southern hemisphere brand of rugby, they like to move the ball and they have got the strengths all across the park really, so we are going to have to be on our game 1-15 and 1-22 to try and defuse some of the threats they throw at us.”
New Zealand have made four changes to the starting line up to face Wales, Ash Dixon coming in at hooker, Luke Braid in the back row, Aaron Smith in at scrum half and Zac Guildford coming onto the right wing – none of them easy calls to make according to Hilton-Jones.
“Dave [Rennie] and I have had a pretty tough job selected the side. We have picked what we think is the best side to play against Wales and try and win that game. We have got a lot of depth and some really disappointed players that haven’t made the starting fifteen. So I guess in summary it’s the best side we think to take on Wales, but if we get through that game we have still got question marks around some positions.”
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