Wynne Gray

Wynne Gray is a Herald columnist

Rugby: Midfield combos centre of attention

Jonathan Davies. Photo / Getty Images
Jonathan Davies. Photo / Getty Images

It seems strange that last night's test was the first time two vital midfield combinations - Ma'a Nonu and Conrad Smith for the All Blacks and Jamie Roberts and Jonathan Davies for Wales - have clashed head-on.

The two teams have played each other eight times since 2004, when Smith and Nonu were both new All Blacks, but for a variety of reasons these four had not stacked up against each other until last night. In fact, the only time Roberts and Davies have played together against the All Blacks was in 2010 when they lost 29-10 in Hamilton and Roberts scored the first try for the Welsh against New Zealand in five years. In that match, they marked Benson Stanley and Richard Kahui in the midfield.

Last night's was a much-anticipated contest. The midfield battle is always an intriguing and important one and the days of Walter Little and Frank Bunce matching up against Tim Horan and Jason Little were sub-plot highlights of transtasman rugby. All four merit long discussions about inclusion in World XVs of their era and certainly in the best sides from their era in their national colours. As individuals they were classy but it was their understanding with each other, the nuances they brought to their play and complete reliability, which marked them down as world-class.

That description sits well with the Nonu and Smith partnership while Roberts and Davies have put together handy CVs and are developing into a robust alliance. Roberts is a hulking man whose power and disregard for his safety in the collision zones in midfield have given Wales and the British and Irish Lions a missile to follow. He is certainly on Warren Gatland's wish list for health and prosperity ahead of the Lions trip next season.

Beside him, Jonathan Davies is another steel girder at centre although his progress has been inhibited this season by a niggling groin strain.

Davies carries flushed cheeks and headgear into a test but any youthful camouflage is dispelled by the way he plays. If there is a bit of the axe and rapier about Nonu and Smith, the Welsh duo bring heavy hammer drills and a step to their work.

Why take Route 29 when Route 1 is quicker, they might say, although Davies does have a neat jink and step which has flummoxed uncertain defenders. He was set to go after weeks of frustration dealing with his injury.

Wales had been hugely disappointed after losses to Argentina and Samoa. "We felt we could have done so much more and got a bit of momentum going into this one but have dusted ourselves off for this."

Wales had not used their possession wisely in their initial tests this autumn and knew they had to remedy that, fast, if they were to trouble the All Blacks.

"New Zealand are a great team, the best in the world, and we have to make sure we believe in ourselves and what we have achieved in the last 14 months and that these last two weekends have been just a blip.

"We have to make sure we get back on terms and thinking on the same way we were in the Six Nations."

Nonu and Smith were a world-class combination to counter.

"You want to put yourself up against the best and those two are certainly the best in the world."

- Herald on Sunday

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