Wales v New Zealand: Could Wales really beat the All Blacks?
WALES V NEW ZEALAND
- Venue: Millennium Stadium, Cardiff
- Date: 24 November, 2012
- Kick-off: 17:15 GMT
Coverage: Live on BBC Two, HD and Online, & S4C; Commentary on BBC 5 live, Radio Wales & Radio Cymru; live video, audio and text commentary on BBC Sport website
Wales captain Sam Warburton believes there is "every chance" his side can beat the All Blacks on Saturday, a result that would end a 59-year, 24-match losing streak against the world's number one side.
Has he lost his marbles? After all, only a fortnight ago Warburton thought the Six Nations Grand Slam holders had every right to target four wins out of four this autumn.
Two down - two defeats to Argentina and Samoa - two to go.
Last six meetings
- Nov 2010: Wales 25-37 NZ
- Jun 2010: NZ 29-10 Wales
- Jun 2010: NZ 42-9 Wales
- Nov 2009: Wales 12-19 NZ
- Nov 2008: Wales 9-29 NZ
- Nov 2006: Wales 10-45 NZ
To give him his due, Warburton can hardly say he expects to get beaten, even if the overwhelming body of evidence suggests that will be the outcome in Cardiff.
In the last half-dozen meetings over the past six years, the All Blacks have racked up 201 points at an average of 33.5 per game. Wales have managed 75, at 12.5 per match. The try tally is 20-3 in New Zealand's favour.
Assessing last week's defeat by Samoa, former Wales captains Jonathan Davies and Gareth Thomas were damning about what the current side lacked. Effort. Leadership. Intensity. Pace. Communication. Variation. Confidence. Imagination. A scrum.
So is it really possible to construct an argument for a Wales victory, against a side unbeaten in their last 19 Tests? And if so, how?
Take inspiration from the All Blacks aura
The intimidation factor is legendary. But according to Thomas, who came closer than any Wales captain of the last 30 years to breaking the barren run against New Zealand, in 2004, it can work in the hosts' favour.
"They come out with such a massive aura that they are so invincible, it actually picks you up," he said. "If they were playing a lower-ranked team this week, Wales would be on a hiding to nothing. But against the undefeatable world champions, they have got nothing to lose. They know they have to play with 100% effort and nothing less."
They are used to this scenario, teams playing above themselves - possibly out of fear of the consequences if they don't - against them.
"Every team plays 10-20% better than normal against the All Blacks," acknowledged the greatest of them all, Sir Colin Meads. "It is because the All Blacks are the All Blacks. It was always the same when I played. Teams might not be that flash but when they play us, they play really well."
Deal with the haka
In 2008, Wales memorably stared down the Kiwis as they laid down the haka, refusing to move after it finished. Eventually referee Jonathan Kaplan had to tell both teams he had a game to start.
It was certainly an improvement on 2006, when a pre-match spat resulted in New Zealand performing it in their dressing room, denying Wales the chance to respond with the national anthem, Hen Wlad fy Nhadau.
The 2008 defiance galvanised the crowd into a fervour, but ultimately made little impact on the result, the All Blacks winning 29-9.
Will Wales have anything special up their sleeves this year? And ultimately, does it make a difference? The important thing is they are not distracted by it, and switched on for kick-off.
Last week they conceded a try to Samoa with barely a minute on the clock. Give the All Blacks that sort of start...
Back to basics
Last week Wales set out to turn Samoa's scrum at every opportunity, a tactic that yielded little reward after the early departure of Wales hooker Richard Hibbard, and the second-half introduction of James Johnston on the Samoan tight-head. By the end, the Wales scrum splintered alarmingly, conceding a series of penalties.
The All Blacks scrum is as strong as any these days, with Saturday's front row boasting 210 caps between them. Aaron Jarvis is playing only his third Test for Wales, but the return of former captain Matthew Rees at hooker should help Wales in the set-piece.
While they only lost two out of 15 line-outs according to the statistics, there was an over-reliance on throwing to front jumper Bradley Davies. To generate more attacking ball more often, using Luke Charteris in the middle and the likes of Warburton and Ryan Jones at the tail, will be vital.
"If they get the basics right - scrum, line-out, and getting over the gain line - all of a sudden you will see everyone pick their game up, because they will be running at a defence on the back foot," noted Davies.
Ah yes, the gain line...
Wales' attempts to breach this non-existent, imaginary line - the one that dictates whether a team is going forwards or backwards, when there is a breakdown in play - against Samoa bordered on the farcical. New Zealand, meanwhile, have demonstrated ruthless efficiency and speed in winning ruck ball and moving it swiftly to create space for their backs.
"If you give them the gain line, you are dead," says former Wales flanker Kingsley Jones. "They work on a policy of having more players on their feet in attack than the defending team. It looks simple but their efficiency is incredible. The ball is there for the scrum-half on a plate."
One crumb of comfort was the way Scotland caused problems with their counter-rucking, when New Zealand only sent one man into rucks, forcing the odd turnover. "You need to pressure them in those areas," Jones added. "But first you must defend the gain line."
Wales conceded 17 turnovers against Argentina, and a further 16 against Samoa. If that number even reaches double figures on Saturday, the scoreline could be brutal.
Re-boot the attack
Wales have made a single line-break - against Samoa - in their two games so far, and scored a single try, from an interception.
Shuffling on slow ball has compounded the problem, but booting it away - Wales kicked from hand 27 times in both games - has also highlighted the lack of confidence in their running game.
While a familiar refrain from the camp has been the need to "play in the right areas", there is also a concern that they have stopped backing their ability when space does open up, or else are failing to spot it.
While George North's late withdrawal from the starting line-up is a blow, it might focus Welsh efforts to vary their game away from simply using their biggest backs such as Jamie Roberts and Alex Cuthbert to bash the ball up the middle.
Last week they repeatedly tried to bring North into the line off first-phase ball before they had committed any of the Samoa defence. It made for grisly viewing.
Leaders - your country needs you
Warburton, Ryan Jones and the returning Rees have all captained Wales in recent times, while the likes of centre Jamie Roberts and scrum-half Mike Phillips also have leadership roles in different areas.
According to Thomas, their role in the build-up, and showing a 'follow me' example during the match, is vital.
"I don't believe you become a great player overnight, and these guys have earned reputations," says 'Alfie', who won 100 caps for his country.
"These senior players really need to pull the young players up and say 'it is not good enough'. When I was playing it was OK to lose to the likes of New Zealand and Australia, but now it is not, because this team is good enough to beat them."
It's all in the head
Head coach Warren Gatland alluded this week to the fact that Wales' current problems are as much mental as anything else.
"What we are facing is not a a physical issue but getting heads right," said the New Zealander, back directing operations after a two-week sojourn on Lions duty.
How much he has been been able to transform the mentality and confidence of players such as fly-half Rhys Priestland in the space of a week remains to be seen. In public, at least, the players have been united in insisting the form of the last fortnight is merely "a blip".
"Cardiff will be absolutely bouncing come 5.15pm on Saturday, and by that time, whatever has gone on over the last two weeks won't matter," says Davies. "If Wales start well, it could be a great evening, but they have got to believe they can do it.
"New Zealand are a brilliant side and you have to respect them, but you can't fear them. If you try to beat your opposite number, and 12 or 13 of you do that, then you have got a great chance."
Over to you boys.