25th November 2010
New Zealand will be 80 minutes away from clinching yet another Grand Slam when they tackle Wales at the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff on Saturday.
"Will be?" cry the supporters in the red corner. Not "willpotentially be?". Whilst it's premature - or arrogant even - to suggest Wales have no hope in hell. Sadly for them, it's the truth.
With Wales having last won a Test match eight months ago, losing five and drawing one of their last six fixtures - it's pretty hard betting on the home side who face a Herculean task trying to stop the All Blacks' juggernaut, whose last defeat against their hosts came 57 years ago since when they have reeled off 23 successive wins in the fixture.
Wales have never gone through an entire November series of Tests without winning at least one game, but that is the fate that awaits them if they lose this weekend. New Zealand, meanwhile, have amassed 113 points and 13 tries in seeing off England, Scotland and Ireland, and it will take a huge effort by the Welshmen to avoid similar treatment.
Victory over Wales would cap off a memorable year that has seen New Zealand win all but one game that also included a clean sweep of the Tri-Nations. They have rarely been stretched since arriving on Northern Hemisphere shores following their defeat to Australia in Hong Kong, save for a second-half salvo by England at Twickenham.
Fatigue could be the only factor in seeing the All Blacks' wheels come off, but it's highly unlikely as Graham Henry's troops go in search of a win that would seal a third Grand Slam of the Home Unions in six seasons - an amazing feat.
In fact, the Kiwis only seem to be getting better as the tour reaches its finale while Wales plot their recovery from last week's much criticised draw against Fiji and sabotage New Zealand's quest for a fourth Grand Slam in the last decade.
The first step by coach Warren Gatland was to sack his losing skipper Ryan Jones - a move which has been chastised by former players upset at the manner of the loose forward's demotion.
Matthew Rees will lead the side and Jones, who had been Gatland's captain since starting his tenure after the 2007 World Cup, will start at number eight. The knee-jerk reaction to axe his loyal leader only confirms that things are not well on the pitch, but off it too.
Defeats are stacking up for Gatland, the no-nonsense New Zealander, and questions must now surely be raised as to why his employees offered him a new four-year contract before this current end-of-year campaign kicked off.
Poor results aside, the run of defeats has also shown beyond all doubt that Wales lack sufficient strength in depth to be rated realistic 2011 World Cup contenders.
The same can't be said of New Zealand whose current successes have raised hopes that this current crop of players can end 24 years of longing and secure World Cup glory on home soil next year.
But first things first.
Ones to watch:
For Wales: The 22-man squad named for this weekend's clash features 19 personnel or positional changes from the squad humbled by a draw with Fiji. But out of all the reinforcements called in, it's who has been retained that could play a big part. Ryan Jones may have had his captaincy armband stripped of him, but he gets a chance at redemption and will no doubt look to make amends with a solid - and penalty free - outing for his country.
For New Zealand: All Blacks fly-half Dan Carter will enter international rugby's record books as the most prolific scorer of all time if he contributes just three points to New Zealand's cause on Saturday. Given he averages effectively 19 points a time against Wales - he has amassed 150 in eight appearances - it should be a formality that he overtakes Jonny Wilkinson's total for England and the British and Irish Lions of 1178.
Head to head:
Alan Lewis v Richie McCaw. Wales openside flanker Sam Warburton makes his comeback from injury to match-up against All Blacks captain Richie McCaw in an ominous duel at the breakdown, but that's not where most eyes will be focused on. With McCaw's alleged immunity from referee prosecution, it will be interesting to see how the IRB Player of the Year nominee gets on with Irish ref Lewis who has been urged by compatriot Stephen Ferris to use the sin bin when Welsh ball is impeded. No pressure then.
2010: New Zealand won 29-10, Waikato Stadium, Hamilton
2010: New Zealand won 42-9, Carisbrook, Dunedin
2009: New Zealand won 19-12, Millennium Stadium, Cardiff
2008: New Zealand won 29-9, Millennium Stadium, Cardiff
2006: New Zealand won 45-10, Millennium Stadium, Cardiff
2005: New Zealand won 41-3, Millennium Stadium, Cardiff
2004: New Zealand won 26-25, Millennium Stadium, Cardiff
2003: New Zealand won 53-37, Stadium Australia, Sydney
2003: New Zealand won 55-3, Waikato Stadium, Hamilton
2002: New Zealand won 43-17, Millennium Stadium, Cardiff
It's not a question if New Zealand will beat Wales, but rather by how much. All Blacks to win by ten points.
Wales: 15 Lee Byrne, 14 George North, 13 Tom Shanklin, 12 James Hook, 11 Tom James, 10 Stephen Jones, 9 Mike Phillips, 8 Ryan Jones, 7 Sam Warburton, 6 Dan Lydiate, 5 Alun-Wyn Jones, 4 Bradley Davies, 3 Adam Jones, 2 Matthew Rees (c), 1 Gethin Jenkins.
Replacements: 16 Huw Bennett, 17 Paul James, 18 Jonathan Thomas, 19 Andy Powell, 20 Martyn Williams, 21 Richie Rees, 22 Andrew Bishop.
New Zealand: 15 Mils Muliaina, 14 Isaia Toeava, 13 Conrad Smith, 12 Sonny Bill Williams, 11 Hosea Gear, 10 Daniel Carter, 9 Jimmy Cowan, 8 Kieran Read, 7 Richie McCaw (c), 6 Jerome Kaino, 5 Sam Whitelock, 4 Brad Thorn, 3 Owen Franks, 2 Keven Mealamu, 1 Tony Woodcock.
Replacements: 16 Andrew Hore, 17 John Afoa, 18 Anthony Boric, 19 Daniel Braid, 20 Andy Ellis, 21 Stephen Donald, 22 Ma'a Nonu.
Date: Saturday, November 27
Venue: Millennium Stadium, Cardiff
Kick-off: 17:15 (17:15 GMT; 06:15 NZ time, Sunday 28 November)
Referee: Alan Lewis (Ireland)
Assistant referees: Jonathan Kaplan (South Africa), David Changleng (Scotland)
TMO: Giulio De Santis (Italy)
By Dave Morris