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All Blacks still World Cup favourites - Barry John

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    18 Mar 2019     Getty Images

That was the question on all Welsh rugby fans minds after their win over Ireland on Saturday, as they look to rid themselves of their lack of success over New Zealand since 1953.

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"Steve Hansen's side have lost in recent times to Ireland and a couple of Rugby Championship games, but they remain the benchmark and barometer for Wales," John said in his Wales on Sunday column.

"New Zealand are the ultimate masters of the Houdini act. They can be a couple of scores down with just five minutes to go, yet still find a knack of pulling the game out of the bag.

"It is entirely possible we will meet them in the World Cup knockout stages, perhaps even in the final itself as the first and second ranked countries in the world. Our chances at that point would depend upon who's available, who might be injured and at the moment in time you'd still have to say New Zealand would be favourites," he said.

But with 14 consecutive wins they were gaining in confidence and needed to fear no one whoever they met in Japan.

John also felt vindicated in his touting of New Zealander Gareth Anscombe as the preferred starting five-eighths for Wales, although injury to wing George North resulted in a reshuffle of the backline with Anscombe slipping back to fullback.

Anscombe proved a 'master tactician' for Wales and controlled matters again and had proven himself at Test level.

"He has become a vital cog in this Warren Gatland machine and will be a pivotal figure in Gatland's World Cup planning," John said.
"Okay, I know Dan Biggar came on at 10 and Anscombe moved back to 15. But he had already set the tone for the game with the beautiful little chip to set up Hadleigh Parkes' early try, a moment which gave Wales and their magnificent fans huge belief.

"Moments like that define games.

"Once Anscombe went to fullback, he displayed his full range of qualities, sweeping up everything, clearing superbly, challenging the Irish defence when necessary. And, of course, his goalkicking was sublime, as proved by the 20 points and man of the match award to his name.

"It was the complete performance by Anscombe and in my eyes he has grown massively during this tournament," he said.

Many Welsh fans had been calling for Anscombe to be used as a bench player with Biggar starting but John said Gatland had been proven right in remaining resolute to his policy.

"It's definitely the right way around. Anscombe is the more inventive player and Wales needed that from their 10 during this tournament to take things onto a new level," he said.

Anscombe would be the definite starter come the World Cup, John said.

"The more he has played, the more confident he has become, the more we see his box of tricks come out, and that really does augur well for the World Cup."