The bronze medal match at a Rugby World Cup is often the cruelest test any team will play.
Having seen title hopes shattered in the semifinals and after days lost in disappointment, players have to lift themselves for a supplementary match, seldom more than a formality.
But Friday’s third-place playoff between Wales and New Zealand will come laden with more significance than most of its eight predecessors.
For one thing, it will be a match of significant departures. Head coaches Warren Gatland of Wales and Steve Hansen of New Zealand will both lead their teams into a test match for the final time, ending long and successful episodes in their careers.
Captain Kieran Read, if selected, will pull on the All Blacks jersey for the final time, as will a number of senior players on both teams. Those farewells will make the occasion poignant, whatever the outcome.
There is also the chance for Wales to make history. Wales hasn’t beaten New Zealand since 1953 and has lost 11 matches against the All Blacks with Gatland in charge. So for Gatland, there is one last chance to beat his homeland.
“For me, last game in charge of Wales against All Blacks will be hugely monumental,” he said. “As a coach, apart from being on the Lions, it’s the only team I haven’t beaten with Wales.
“It’ll be nice to achieve that and look at some excitement in challenges ahead for me and going back to coaching in New Zealand with the Chiefs.”
The challenge for both teams will be how to approach the game, whether to call again on the players who have come through intense and physical semifinals or to hand the torch immediately to a new generation.
“We’ll look closely over next couple of days how the players pull up for this … whether to make change and give some players a rest because it’s a five-day turnaround,” Gatland said. “You’re playing the All Blacks and they’re probably hurting as much as we are. Tough game to play.”
Hansen, stepping down after 15 years as a member of the All Blacks coaching staff including eight as head coach, faces the same difficult call.
“The fact is the game’s there and the fact is we have to get up,” he said. “They’re the inconvenient facts.
“It will be the last week that this team is together and we have an opportunity to do it well. I know in talking to the boys we’ll get a response.”
Hansen said he hasn’t spoken to the players about who may be in the match-day 23.
“There are two options; you ask the guys who went around on Saturday to go around again, or you use your whole squad,” Hansen said. “We’ve always said we’re a team of 31 and we’ve been working hard for each other so I would probably, if I was a journalist writing a story, be writing about a few extra guys coming in. If there is, they probably deserve to be there.”
Read will almost certainly start in the All Blacks No. 8 jersey and his teammates will hope to help him finish his 127th test on a high note.
“We’re playing, so we will treat it like any test match,” Read said. “It will be a bit different for us, but … we’re All Blacks, so it’s a chance for us to pull on the jersey again.
“For some of us it may be our last chance.”
New Zealand will be playing in the bronze medal match for the fourth time, Wales for the third. Wales was part of the first-ever playoff, beating a 14-man Australia lineup 22-21 in 1987, and lost to Australia 21-18 in 2011.
New Zealand beat Scotland 13-6 in 1991, lost to South Africa 22-18 in 1999 and beat France 46-13 in 2003.
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