If this opening match was any indication of what is to come from the rest of the series, rugby fans in both hemispheres are in for a treat.
It only took five minutes for the first points of the night to find their way onto the board. Aaron Cruden made up for a miss in the third minute where he bounced a penalty off the post, this time making good on a 30 metre chip shot penalty from the dead centre of the pitch, to put the Kiwis up 3-0.
It wouldn't take the Welsh long to answer back as just six minutes later, Taulupe Faletau scored a beautiful try, finishing off some great passing and took advantage of an overlap, sliding into the corner for five. Dan Biggar would miss the conversion, from a tricky angle on the extreme left of the pitch.
The high tempo continued on in the 15', where the Kiwis were pressing. Storming down from just inside the Welsh half, New Zealand quickly brought the ball up to the five metre line, and then Cruden showed off his fancy footwork. Taking a recycled pass, he spotted a weakness in the Welsh backs and sent a high kick right into the hands of Julian Savea who did well to land with possession, and touched the ball down to return the lead to his side. Despite showing off some great kicking skills on the run, Cruden continued to struggle from the ground, and hooked another ball wide left, keeping the lead at three.
The Welsh would continue their offensive pressure, as a George North run down the flank nearly lead to another try, but after losing it into touch, the Kiwis would continue to build their lead.
From inside their 22, New Zealand won their lineout and the fullback Ben Smith went on an incredible run, weaving through the Welsh defenders in his path. A quick pop to Cruden, and a beautiful switch underneath gave Waisake Naholo the try. Much to the relief of the New Zealand supporters, Cruden converted this time around, and the Kiwis went up ten at the midway mark of the first half.
Three minutes later, Malakai Fekitoa was caught offside by referee Wayne Barnes, giving Wales a chance to respond. Biggar would sail the nearly 50M penalty through the uprights, cutting the lead to seven.
The high-tempo pace continued, and in the 26' minute Biggar would have another shot at three, and he would hit from 30M out. Wales within four.
At some point, we might have expected the match to slow down and give everyone a chance to catch their breath, but we would be wrong. More big hits and more chances from both rugby giants, as Alun Wyn Jones (playing in his 100th cap for Wales) and Jamie Roberts nearly connect for a Welsh try, but would knock the ball on near the ten metre line. Then after the ball changed hands a few times, George North would look for a run down the side off another exceptional Ben Smith sprint down the left flank, but would be chased out of bounds. North definitely looked to be on his game through the first half hour.
Wales would steal the lead back on the last score of the half. In the thirty-first, Ross Moriarty tried to boot a ball through the NZ back line, but Ben Smith was quick to recover and clear. Liam Williams would gather that clear for Wales and come storming right back down the middle once more. His offload to Rhys Webb was just barely enough to break past Fekitoa and dive to the line. Biggar would covert easily, and the Dragons found themselves up three.
Heading into the locker rooms for a much deserved break, Wales were up 18-15 leaving their heavily outnumbered supporters singing with delight, and shocking many rugby pundits across the world, who expected the All Blacks to waltz through this opening test match.
Seven minutes into the second frame, Rhys Webb had to be on his toes to stop Fekitoa from punching in another try, but play would be called back for a Welsh offside. Despite his struggles in the first period, Cruden wasn't going to miss that chip, as he tied the game back up.
George North nearly gets his try that he's been so close to all night, but is stopped short of the line and play would be brought back for a late hit on Webb, giving Biggar a chance to give Wales the lead once more - and he converted the penalty from the far right - 21-18 Dragons.
More substitutions entered the field as both teams started to show some fatigue after the relentless pace of the first hour.
Cruden would get another chance after Alun Wyn neglected to roll away from a tackle, but again he missed, this time from just over forty metres out. The Kiwis were certainly wishing Dan Carter was still wearing the All Black #10.
After one of the biggest tackles delivered by Wales' Gethin Jenkins (a man who many did not believe should have been in Warren Gatland's Starting XV) that I have seen in a while, Wales began to lose half a step of pace. And when you're facing the All Blacks, even a half step is too much to lose.
In the 62', after the Welsh were caught offside, Naholo took a pass off of a quick restart, and muscled his way onto the line. The TMO would have to confirm it, but the try would stand and a Cruden conversion would put the Kiwis up 25-21.
The New Zealand lineout would continue to work to near perfection, and in the 68' minute more great ball movement from the All Blacks would create a gap, and the new captain, Kieran Read in his first game in charge after taking over from the now-retired legend, Richie McCaw, would crash over the line for the score. With the conversion, the Kiwis went up 11.
A controversial call in the 72' after New Zealand looked to have scored again. A brilliant play from Aaron Cruden, seemingly capped off by Aaron Smith was challenged by Wayne Barnes. The man with the whistle overruled his TMO and decided the final pass from Cruden was indeed forward, giving the Welsh a scrum.
Off the scrum, Wales had a try of their own negated as Faletau was clearly in front of the Gareth Davies kick which he collected on his way to touching it down in the All Black try zone. Kiwi fans released a sigh of relief, and felt a bit of redemption after the previous play.
Nearing the horn both teams, who were mostly replaced by their respective substitutes, continued to battle. Wales could not seem to muster up any more offence, but the All Blacks had a bit of magic left in them.
Just before the horn, a Welsh knock on gave New Zealand one final scrum at the Welsh 22. A passionate All Black run, finished off by the replacement hooker, Nathan Harris, and one final Cruden conversion made the final 39-21. Despite the 18 point win, the scoreline did not represent the competitiveness of the opening match of Wales' tour.
Team Report Cards:
Despite being down in the first half, the score after forty had more to do with the way the Welsh played, rather than what New Zealand was, or was not doing.
In the end, patience and overall strength and skill kept this All Black side looking like they have over the past few years.
The offence was creative and aggressive, and the defence made the stops they needed to. When time arrived in the latter half of the game, the Bench stepped up strong to seal the victory.
They came out firing on all cylinders, and they played bold. Something skipper Sam Warburton said they needed to do, to have a chance to beat the All Blacks, in his post game interview.
The offence was inspired and many players had impressive games in the red shirts. While they have to tighten some aspects of their game up, I believe that if they can sustain that same style of play from the first 60 minutes tonight and the bench can step up near the end, they can take at least one victory away from this tour of New Zealand.
Player Report Cards:
Man of the Match: While this was a tough decision to make, I think that the MoM has to go to Waisake Naholo. He lead his side with two tries, 16 carries, and 183 metres gained.
Honourable Mention: Kieran Read was also spectacular tonight, in his first match as skipper of the All Blacks. Taking over the captaincy from one of the best of all time in Richie McCaw cannot be an easy thing to do, even in a test match, but Read stepped up and helped lead his team to victory. His try in the 68' minute was just icing on the cake. I think the future of New Zealand rugby is in very good hands with Kieran Read.
Underachiever: Even when I had the opportunity to watch him play in Chicago, as well as following the Chiefs in Super Rugby, Aaron Cruden's inability to kick conversions and penalties never ceases to amaze me. Despite having a very solid game otherwise, including a beautiful setup for the All Black's first try of the game, I think there definitely remains some question marks here with Cruden. Had the game tonight have been closer, those two missed penalty goals, and the missed conversion could have costed New Zealand. Let's see if he can bounce back in the remaining games of the tour.
Man of the Match: Though no one player really stepped up when he needed to, I have to give the Welsh MoM to Dan Biggar. He kicked well tonight, contributing 11 of Wales' 21 points (1/2 Conversions, 3/4 Penalty Goals). He also added 17 passes, six carries, and eight tackles.
Honourable Mention: There were a couple players that could have won honourable mention tonight, but I thought Liam Williams had a solid game tonight for the Dragons at fullback. 101 metres gained over 11 carries, beating four defenders and winning three clean breaks, and assisting on one try.
Underachiever: I couldn't pick one player as an underachiever who stood out, so instead I'll give the label to the entire Welsh bench. Though I don't necessarily see eye-to-eye with Warren Gatland's decision to dip into his reserves as early as he did, I still think that even when you're playing the best team in the world, you have to up your game, and the substitutes simply didn't do that tonight. There was a remarkable difference when they were on the pitch, as opposed to the Starting XV. They will have to be better throughout the rest of the series if Wales are to win a game over New Zealand.