While New Zealand have been setting the rugby world alight with a range of superb skills in their exciting high-tempo ball-in-hand pattern of play, Wales have not won a match since March.
It is no surprise then that when they meet at the Millennium Stadium on Saturday, the All Blacks go in as overwhelming favourites with the Welsh labelled no-hopers. And while these designations are not necessarily accurate, since it is after all 15 top-tier international players against 15, even the most optimistic of Welsh supporters believe it will take a miracle for the home team to win.
In 27 clashes since their inaugural Test match in 1905, Wales have beaten New Zealand three times, but not in over half a century as those wins came in 1905, 1935 and 1953, with New Zealand winning 23 in a row since then. The All Blacks have scored a total of 103 tries to Wales’ 22 and 812 points to 256.
Wales have a miserable Test record for 2010 with a mere two wins in 11 games, managing to beat only Scotland and Italy. They’ve lost to England, France, Ireland, Australia, South Africa (twice) and New Zealand (twice).
They drew with Fiji last week in a performance described by coach Warren Gatland as embarrassing. Gatland and his assistant coaches Shaun Edwards and Rob Howley were openly critical of the shortcomings in the Welsh players’ performance and so upset was the head coach that he announced to his team in the changing-room immediately after the Fiji debacle that captain Ryan Jones would be replaced as skipper by Matthew Rees.
Gatland recently had his contract extended to 2015, but the harsh reality is that since winning the Six Nations in 2008, Wales have won only 11 of their last 28 games. In stark contrast, the All Blacks have won 12 of their 13 Tests this year, with the sole defeat the last-play loss to Australia in Hong Kong. They’ve beaten South Africa three times, Australia three times, Wales and Ireland twice each, plus England and Scotland.
While Wales have scored a total of 19 tries this year, the Kiwis have scored 54. For Wales to be competitive, there will need to be an enormous improvement in their set piece, with line-outs a key platform. Decision-making, especially as to when to hold on to the ball, when to offload and when to kick, discipline in not conceding penalties, and accuracy – at breakdown in particular – will all be crucial.
Their defence will be stretched thin as the All Blacks have shown impressive ability to attack both close in and out wide, and if the opposition have that covered they attack through the middle. The New Zealanders’ variation of point of attack and the rapidity with which they change the area of pressure has been brilliant.
If Wales fail to guard their possession as they take the ball through phases and end up conceding multiple turnovers, they will spend a chunk of the game watching Daniel Carter lining up conversions, because the All Blacks are avaricious in converting turnovers into tries.
But Wales are not without attacking skill and they will have learned from Australia and England that it is vital to take the game to the All Blacks as much as possible, to run at the New Zealanders and put their defence under pressure.
The All Blacks are potent on attack and miserly on defence, but they are not invulnerable.
Can Wales defend tightly enough when the visitors have ball in hand and exert sufficient pressure on the Kiwi defence with their own possession to make a tight game of it? Do Wales have the mental toughness to escape the mire of mediocrity in which they have been wallowing and play to potential?
They have 80 minutes on Saturday to redeem themselves, not least of all in the eyes of their own passionate supporters.
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 (captain), 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 (captain), 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, Sunday November 28 NZ time)
Expected weather: Maximum temperature 1ºC, minimum -3ºC; wind chill -6ºC to -8ºC; cloudy/snow showers; wind from north east 14-16km/h
Referee: Alan Lewis (Ireland)
Assistant referees: Jonathan Kaplan (South Africa), David Changleng (Scotland)
TMO: Giulio De Santis (Italy)