Since Wales’ 13-8 triumph over New Zealand in 1953, it has been one-way traffic in the intervening 68 years – all in the direction of the All Blacks. Only three times have Wales got to within a score of their southern-hemisphere opponents – the 19-16 loss in 1972, the 13-12 defeat in 1978 and, more recently, a 26-25 nail-biter in 2004. The other 28 fixtures have usually culminated with Wales being steamrolled by the New Zealand juggernaut.
While those close-but-no-cigar games in the Seventies might have faded from the hippocampi of fans over time, the 2004 one-point thriller is still undoubtedly fresh in the memory for the majority of 74,024 who packed the Principality Stadium that day. From Tom Shanklin’s wonder try to Gavin Henson’s penalty kick that bounced back off a post, Wales came within a whisker of finally ending their All Black hoodoo.
It also marked the closing chapter of a storied Test career for former Wales lock Gareth Llewellyn, who set a then record of 92 caps for his country stretching back 15 years. It ended where it all began for the now 52-year-old as well as he made his international debut against the All Blacks, a 34-9 all-too-familiar thumping in Cardiff. A baptism of fire if ever there was one. At least, though, the Haka wasn’t as fearsome a spectacle in the amateur era as it is nowadays.
“I don’t remember too much about the Haka in that game but certainly looking back at days gone by, it was a pretty ordinary display,” said Llewellyn. “But they have obviously bought in to what it means now. From talking to (former Wales and New Zealand coach) Steve Hansen, it was important they began to represent it properly.
“It’s a great show and unique to rugby, I don’t understand the people who are arguing to get it stopped. Generally, those people are not ex-players, they’re administrators who think they are doing their team a favour.
“The Haka is an amazing thing. When my kids were very young, all they wanted to do was watch New Zealand do the Haka and didn’t have any particular interest in watching the match.
“As for my debut for Wales, I remember being hopelessly out of breath. It was extremely fast but I also remember looking at them and seeing how hard they were blowing and realising it was also quick for them.
“Then it was just things like, as it was the leftovers of the 1987 World Cup-winning side, seeing people like Grant Fox taking his kicks and thinking, ‘It looks exactly like it does on TV’.
“We’d played them at club level beforehand and they were a decent bunch of guys, we had a chat and a beer with them after the Neath match. So it was a great experience but I probably wasn’t old enough or ready enough to take it all in really.”
If the 1989 clash planted a seed of belief in Llewellyn’s mind that Wales could begin to compete with the All Blacks, then it surprisingly started to flower on their two-Test 2002 southern-hemisphere tour, losing to Australia 30-10 and being hammered 55-3 by New Zealand in Hamilton.
Steve was quite amazing because we’d lost by a lot and he said, ‘Let me show you how we’re going to beat New Zealand next time we play them
“Steve Hansen was coaching us at the time and we got up the next day to do a quick workout to get the New Zealand game – which people remember for Jerry Collins knocking Colin Charvis unconscious – out of our system, then we went in to do a video debrief,” said Llewellyn, who played for Neath, Harlequins, the Ospreys, Narbonne and Bristol over two decades.
“Steve was quite amazing because we’d lost by a lot and he said, ‘Let me show you how we’re going to beat New Zealand next time we play them’.
“So we went through the debrief where New Zealand got away from us in the last 20 minutes and he said, ‘Look, we’re just not fit enough. I don’t care what happened in the last 20, that was just fitness’. Then he just picked up on three or four individual errors in the match that allowed New Zealand to score and just get two or three scores ahead of us.
“We left thinking, ‘If we hadn’t made those mistakes, it would have been a really close match and we need to get fitter’. That was a big point for me in that Steve had that belief we could turn that deficit around.”
Wales would go on to push the All Blacks all the way in a roller-coaster 53-37 defeat in the 2003 World Cup quarter-final. A Shane Williams-inspired team actually led 37-33 in the 54th minute until the All Blacks, once again, pulled away in the final quarter. “Shane took that opportunity with both hands but the belief was already growing, which was driven by Steve Hansen,” said Llewellyn.
On to the 2004 clash and considering that it would prove to be his final Test – Llewellyn was picked for the 2005 Six Nations squad but didn’t play – it is a bit surprising to learn that, just like on his debut, he doesn’t remember the Haka that November day. But at least he had a good excuse this time.
“The only time I remember the Haka is when I played at No 6 in the World Cup in 1995 (a match Wales lost 34-9) and Jamie Joseph was my opposite number. He made a point of seeking me out and staring me down,” said Llewellyn.
“People get worked up about the Haka – and I think it’s a fantastic thing for rugby and for sport – but I always realised at the end of it, the score was still 0-0. They weren’t going to score during the Haka, it was the 80 minutes afterwards that we needed to worry about.”
“I used to try to enjoy it. It never got me fired up or made me feel they were getting an advantage by doing it.
What the Kiwis have always been very good at is embracing the opposition and going into the changing room afterwards, meeting and chatting with them. We wanted to reciprocate that, so they came into us.
“But it was a cracking atmosphere in Cardiff because that was the year Wynne Evans, the GoCompare man, grabbed a Welsh flag after the anthems and Haka and started singing ‘Bread of Heaven’. We didn’t know that was coming and thought, ‘What the hell is happening?’ but the crowd really bought into it, it was amazing.”
It obviously did the trick for the players as well. Wales made “a hell of a start”, taking an 11-3 lead thanks to a sublime try by Shanklin, when he raced on to a Stephen Jones chip to score in the corner. Despite New Zealand coming back, with Joe Rokocoko touching down, Wales held a 14-13 advantage at half-time. “Mike Ruddock was in charge but a lot of the chat came from the players by then,” said Llewellyn. “We had so much self-belief, we had such a good system.”
Welsh supporters were then dreaming of glory early in the second half when hooker Mefin Davies went over from close range for a try to take a 19-14 lead. “I dragged Mefin over for that try,” said Llewellyn. “It was probably slightly illegal but I kind of blocked and made a hole at the side of the ruck for Mefin to dive through.”
But tries from Mils Muliaina and Rokocoko, plus the unerring boot of Dan Carter, put the All Blacks back in front. “I remember Gavin Henson hitting the posts with a kick to take the lead in the last 20 minutes,” said Llewellyn. And it proved to be a crucial miss as, despite Henson succeeding with a late penalty, New Zealand held on for the victory.
You might expect that it would have been a devastated, sombre Welsh dressing room in the aftermath of such a crushing loss, but Llewellyn said: “Immediately afterwards? No. What the Kiwis have always been very good at is embracing the opposition and going into the changing room afterwards, meeting and chatting with them. We wanted to reciprocate that, so they came into us.
“We had a great relationship with Steve Hansen (who was then an assistant coach to Graham Henry with the All Blacks), we’d spent the past five years or so under him. I remember speaking to him and asking, ‘What did the Kiwi guys think? Was it the fact that they didn’t play that well, or did they think we’d played really well? Did we actually live up to the mark, or did the Kiwis just have an off day?’ I was sort of looking for their respect.
“Steve said to me, ‘Look, our guys know they have been in a Test match’, so it was really good.”
Only the most optimistic of Welsh supporters are predicting an end to their wait for a win over the All Blacks this Saturday, particularly with the team shorn of their Gallagher Premiership players as the match falls outside of the Test window, but Llewellyn feels that may work in their favour and that the weight of history won’t be a burden on the Welsh players’ shoulders.
We can’t go out there with a conservative game plan and try to limit the opposition. Wales aren’t South Africa and can’t play that type of game. I don’t think you can suffocate New Zealand, they’re too good.
“New Zealand are always going to be favourites but Wales have to approach it thinking that there’s no expectation from anyone,” said Llewellyn. “I know there are some people saying we shouldn’t even be playing because we’re missing a couple of guys from England, so they should just throw the kitchen sink at them and see what happens.
“People talk about the length of time since we’ve beaten them but a lot of those guys will have never played New Zealand before, so it’s not a big deal for them.
“We can’t go out there with a conservative game plan and try to limit the opposition. Wales aren’t South Africa and can’t play that type of game. I have no doubt the roof will be on, conditions will be good and New Zealand will score tries – they always do – so we need to have the attitude of, ‘We’ll score some as well’. I don’t think you can suffocate New Zealand, they’re too good.
“It won’t be a low-scoring match and if Wales approach it with the right attitude, pull off some moves and scores and make sure New Zealand don’t get too far away from us, then we have a chance.”
The building anticipation for the clash in Cardiff means that Llewellyn is considering changing the habit of, if not a lifetime, then certainly his post-playing days.
“I have never bothered going back to watch matches but I might for this one after coming out of the Covid lockdown and nothing going on for a couple of years,” said Llewellyn. “I always get my tickets and give them to friends but I might actually go to this match.”
Just don’t expect Llewellyn to be grabbing a Welsh flag and start belting out of ‘Bread of Heaven’ to the crowd.