Forgive the clumsy allegory, but the build-up to this match feels as though Wales have taken the place of a heroine in an antiquated silent film, tied to train tracks in mortal peril. Ominously, the onrushing locomotive – New Zealand – has gathered irrepressible momentum throughout the past year, first snatching a long-awaited Webb Ellis trophy and then systematically dispatching all in their path.
In the past fortnight alone, victories over Scotland and Italy have showcased flashes of the All Blacks’ finest rugby – a simple, yet fantastically effective marriage of intelligent running lines and pristine handling. Wales, on the other hand, are stuck in a dreadful slump. Dismal losses to Argentina and Samoa each sent boos echoing around the Millennium Stadium and a spate of injuries – most recently to George North – have been disheartening.
Things can only get better. Well, they might if any other side was in Cardiff.
Reasons to back Wales
Sam Warburton’s rallying cry at the start of this week was honest and stirring. Rather than dodge the searching questions that his Grand Slam winners have raised following five straight defeats, the skipper fronted up. Back at openside, he has the chance to vindicate that by nullifying Richie McCaw and stifling the decorated tourists’ flow of quick ball. If ever there was a time for Warburton to re-locate his immense best, this it. Do that, and the playing field becomes more level.
From on-field inspirer to off-field director, Wales should be hugely buoyed by Warren Gatland’s return. Having spent the beginning of the autumn Tests on British and Irish Lions safari, the Kiwi will inject urgency, self-belief and structure – three facets palpably absent from Rob Howley’s hapless reign. At set-piece, performances from lock Luke Charteris and loosehead Paul James are especially essential.
Finally, the hosts have nothing to lose. As Ryan Jones rightly pointed out in the aftermath of Friday night’s debacle, this is rock bottom. Facing the premier team on the planet, Wales can enjoy the occasion and throw caution to the wind. The last time that psyche took hold was at the 2003 World Cup, when they briefly frightened New Zealand before eventually succumbing 53-37. These players are better than those who wore the red shirt nine years ago, too.
Reasons to back New Zealand
Dispelling any suggestion that he may go easy on his former employers, Steve Hansen has picked a seriously strong starting line-up. McCaw and Dan Carter – pending recovery from a “leg twinge” – head up an explosive arsenal of big guns. The presence of Sam Whitelock in the second row and Aaron Smith at scrum-half is definite evidence that the All Blacks mean business.
After shipping three tries at Murrayfield and being held by the determined Azzurri in Rome, New Zealand have not had it all their own way on this tour, though. This time, Hansen will not stand for such pronounced periods of relaxation. With that in mind, expect an eye-watering 80-minute onslaught.
There is one more niggling doubt for Wales that must be mentioned. Quite frankly, the All Blacks represent an entirely different proposition to any they have faced in the past 18 months. Australia were under strength during their trip Down Under this summer and the Six Nations was not a vintage tournament by any means. Even during the World Cup, close losses to South Africa and France were full of faults. If ever there was one, this is a time for heroes to step up. Only then can Wales derail Hansen’s train.
Prediction: Wales to restore pride in a brave loss, setting up redemption against the Wallabies. New Zealand by 9