Sunday, November 08, 2009

Preview: Wales V All Blacks
James Mortimer - (06/11/2009)

If one was to only judge the two sides from the talk coming from the respective camps, one would think that it was Wales who were sitting on what is a 20 match winning streak.

It has been endless, with Coach Warren Gatland, right down to the young Cardiff winger Leigh Halfpenny, all claiming that the All Blacks aura has gone. Not only that, but Wales had moved on and are stronger, while New Zealand is there for the taking.

The All Blacks, as has become their modus operandi, have said nothing of note, and will do their talking on the field. It is sometimes almost eerie how they arrive in a country and never give the opposition anything to be motivated by, except the chance to post what in Wales’ case has now become a very rare thing indeed.

But of course it wasn’t always like this.

In 1905 the All Black Originals toured Europe and North America and won 34 from 35 matches. They would lose only once, to Wales at Cardiff Arms Park 3-0.

While New Zealand would win 19-0 in Swansea in 1925, Wales would win 13-12 in 1924, and again in 1953 by 13-8. As the All Blacks were building their legacy, the Red Dragons would be most bemused by the “alleged” reputation of New Zealand. Wales had played them four times and only lost once. It is doubtful that any side in history would have said this, but in the first half of the 20th century the Welsh would probably think that playing the All Blacks wasn’t really that hard at all.

In 1963 the All Blacks would arrive at Cardiff Arms Park and beat the Welsh 6-0. From here they would embark on one of the great winning streaks between major test nations. From 1969 to 1979 one of the supreme teams in rugby history would don Welsh colours, winning eight Six Nations titles. But in this time even the wizards of Wales would lose to New Zealand, with the nadir coming with a 23-3 loss to the All Blacks in 1980.From 1987 to the present day, the two teams would clash another 13 times. Seven of those matches would be 30 point plus defeats, and nine times the All Blacks would breach 40 points.With this history in mind, a win for Wales at Millennium Stadium this weekend would be akin to winning a Six Nations Grand Slam.

Their verbal assault on the All Blacks is nothing new. All levels of taunts have been tried against New Zealand in the past, from not calling them “All Blacks” to coaches stating “remember, they are not gods in black jerseys, they are just men.”

The small problem for Wales is that they have done this before.

Last year they reminded the All Blacks of their last visit to Millennium Stadium (the 2007 World Cup loss to France) and stood wonderfully eyeballing New Zealand after the haka. Yet despite matching their great antagonists for a half, they wilted in the second.The best news for Wales now is that they have had the Springboks reveal a blueprint for beating the All Blacks. It is simple, uncompromising and (if you believe some media) boring. New Zealand doesn’t like to be taken out of their comfort zone, which South Africa did via physical pressure and a pinpoint kicking game.

The other positive news for the Red Dragons is that the All Blacks in their current vintage are not a strong starting side. If Wales can dominate and lay a match winning platform early, they can then try to then implement the plan as described above.

But then there is the bad news. Wales are not naturally a pragmatic side, and even if they alter their style, do not have the full arsenal of tools to cause the All Blacks problems. The All Blacks and Welsh both like to promote the game, and will likely play openly. However, man for man New Zealand is better at doing this.

Furthermore, as the Wallabies have discovered, the All Blacks finish their matches with such a full sail they are almost impossible to overcome. Even the mighty Springboks came close to being overrun in Hamilton. But Wales is on the up, and has a point to prove.

They have been usurped by Ireland on the European stage, but still provided as many Lions as any other nation and have a wonderful coaching team. They are serious about being a top nation, as evidenced by their new centre of excellence in the Vale of Glamorgan.

A win here against the All Blacks will spark a chain of events that could lead to Six Nations and even 2011 success. Even a loss, as demoralising as it will be, will not be the end of the world. Wales clash with the All Blacks twice in New Zealand next year. So at the very worst a loss on the weekend should harden them to try and achieve one of only two things they have never achieved.One is beat the All Blacks on home soil.

The other is winning a World Cup.For the All Blacks, they are not only seeking a win, but Henry has implied that this tour is doubling as a selection process. This is a canny statement, and will ensure that his players play at their best to ensure they remain in the national framework.While Wales cannot match the likes of Richie McCaw and Dan Carter, there are possible weak links in this All Black team to capitalise on.

Unfortunately for Wales, they have some of their own. And worse, even their tried and true, such as Stephen Jones and Martyn Williams, have gone MIA against the All Blacks before.As has become a catchcry for the Red Dragons, much will depend on whether or not they can stand up and fight.

New Zealand: 15 Mils Muliaina, 14 Cory Jane, 13 Conrad Smith, 12 Ma'a Nonu, 11 Zac Guildford, 10 Dan Carter, 9 Brendon Leonard, 8 Kieran Read, 7 Richie McCaw (captain), 6 Jerome Kaino, 5 Jason Eaton, 4 Brad Thorn, 3 Neemia Tialata, 2 Andrew Hore, 1 Wyatt Crockett.
Replacements: 16 Corey Flynn, 17 Owen Franks, 18 Tom Donnelly, 19 Adam Thomson, 20 Jimmy Cowan, 21 Stephen Donald, 22 Ben Smith.

Wales: 15 James Hook, 14 Leigh Halfpenny, 13 Tom Shanklin, 12 Jamie Roberts, 11 Shane Williams, 10 Stephen Jones, 9 Gareth Cooper, 8 Ryan Jones (captain), 7 Martyn Williams, 6 Andy Powell, 5 Luke Charteris, 4 Alun-Wyn Jones, 3 Paul James, 2 Matthew Rees, 1 Gethin Jenkins.
Replacements: 16 Huw Bennett, 17 Duncan Jones, 18 Bradley Davies, 19 Dafydd Jones, 20 Martin Roberts, 21 Jonathan Davies, 21 Tom James

Date: Saturday, November 7
Venue: Millennium Stadium, Cardiff
Kick-off: 17.30 (17.30 GMT, 06.30 NZ Time - Sunday, November 8)
Referee: Craig Joubert (South Africa)

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