By Sarah Mockford, Rugby World Features Editor
IT’S 59 long years since Wales beat the All Blacks, but right now the more glaring statistic is that they have lost five straight Internationals. A three-Test tour to Australia is tough, but Wales actually proved more competitive Down Under than they have in their two recent matches at the Millennium Stadium. With criticism at a high and confidence at a low, the visit of the world champions probably couldn’t have come at a worst time. Or has it? Wales thrive with the underdogs tag and when they’re under pressure – but is a win over New Zealand a realistic possibility?
Shaun Edwards’s comments post-World Cup about Wales having a good chance against the All Blacks had they made the final have caused a stink this week, the Kiwis challenging Wales to prove their point. In fairness, New Zealand hardly stormed their way to lifting the Webb Ellis Cup and Wales probably could have caused them problems.
It’s a different story 13 months on. The All Blacks have upped their game significantly and are miles ahead of the rest of the world, while Wales’ form dipped dramatically in their defeats by Argentina and Samoa.
Missing VIPs (Very Important Players)
Both sides have lost players this week – George North being ruled out by a hip injury and Dan Carter pulling out because of ankle trouble. Liam Williams comes in for North. He’s a very exciting runner but is more used to playing full-back so the All Blacks are sure to target him defensively. The same can be said of Carter’s stand-in Aaron Cruden: he’s extremely gifted but Jamie Roberts will be licking his lips at the thought of running down the diminutive fly-half’s channel.
Perhaps the key absentee, however, is Adam Jones: Wales rock on the tighthead. Tony Woodcock is one of the best looseheads in the game and will be keen to give Aaron Jarvis another lesson in the rigours of Test rugby.
The key for Wales is trying to contain the All Blacks. We all know the Kiwis are the most dangerous attacking side in the world, but if Sam Warburton and Co can close down their runners they will struggle to find their groove.
Run at Richie McCaw so he’s caught up making the tackle rather than trying to steal a turnover; chase kicks hard and put pressure on the All Blacks in their own 22 so they don’t have the room to counter and are forced to kick clear; retain possession, even if it means a series of pick-and-gos, as even New Zealand can’t score without the ball. Sounds easy, doesn’t it?!
Verdict: Expect an improved Wales performance but NZ will still be a class apart. The All Blacks by ten.
WALES v NEW ZEALAND, Saturday 24 November, Millennium Stadium, 5.15pm, Live on BBC2
WALES: Leigh Halfpenny; Alex Cuthbert, Jonathan Davies, Jamie Roberts, Liam Williams; Rhys Priestland, Mike Phillips; Paul James, Matthew Rees, Aaron Jarvis, Bradley Davies, Luke Charteris, Ryan Jones, Sam Warburton (capt), Toby Faletau.
Replacements: Ken Owens, Gethin Jenkins, Scott Andrews, Aaron Shingler, Justin Tipuric, Tavis Knoyle, James Hook, Scott Williams.
NEW ZEALAND: Israel Dagg; Cory Jane, Conrad Smith, Ma’a Nonu, Julian Savea; Aaron Cruden, Aaron Smith; Tony Woodcock, Andrew Hore, Owen Franks, Luke Romano, Sam Whitelock, Liam Messam, Richie McCaw (capt), Kieran Read.
Replacements: Dane Coles, Wyatt Crockett, Charlie Faumuina, Brodie Retallick, Victor Vito, Piri Weepu, Beauden Barrett, Ben Smith.
Referee: Craig Joubert (South Africa).