Toothless Wales face a real battering by New Zealand
Wales reflect the weather that has hit Cardiff this week, sheltering from storms one day and basking under blue sky the next. The glory of reaching the World Cup semi-final 13 months ago and winning the grand slam last March has been replaced by the gloomy prospect of falling out of the top eight of the world rankings.
While Wales’s form oscillates alarmingly, New Zealand’s remains set at a constant high and the loss of their incomparable outhalf Dan Carter, who was ruled out on Friday evening after having a scan on his injured ankle, will not have the impact other sides would feel. His replacement, Aaron Cruden, will be winning his 19th cap and has yet to be on the losing side in an international.
While Wales have talked all week about the demands of playing a team that has swept all before it, it is just another fixture for the All Blacks. Their centre Conrad Smith was this week asked what a player such as Jonathan Davies, who missed the defeats by Argentina and Samoa, would bring to the Wales back division.
Smith, a veteran of 64 Tests, was for once wrong-footed. “Good question, I don’t know,” replied the lawyer to give himself some more time. “To be honest, we have not looked too much at individuals in the Wales back line. We have spent a lot of time looking at ourselves. I hope that will be enough on Saturday.”
Smith may have been confused by the name: Jonathan Davies was an outhalf who at Auckland in 1988 almost took on the All Blacks single-handedly but his namesake appeared as a replacement for Jamie Roberts in Dunedin in 2010, the occasion of another heavy defeat, when he played opposite Smith.
It was a time when Wales, as now, lost five successive Tests. Two years ago the sequence was halted with a draw against Fiji before New Zealand won in Cardiff. The Wales head coach, Warren Gatland, was under pressure with the Welsh Rugby Union criticised for offering him a contract extension. And then came the World Cup.
Gatland is back at the wheel this week, after being in the back seat for the first two games of the month as he focused on the Lions, and is not blamed for the crashes. The New Zealander has been relaxed, telling his players that recent results are a dip in form, and asking them to view this match as a meeting between the unbeaten champions of the two hemispheres rather than number one in the world against number eight.
Gatland has been working on a few ploys, trying to sharpen an attack that has scored one try this month and that was an interception.
Wales played behind the gainline too often against Argentina and Samoa and their decision-making became confused. The All Blacks conceded three tries in Edinburgh and one in Rome.
But if it makes no difference to the All Blacks who they are playing against, so who they are playing with seems to be immaterial. Which is why their fifth-choice outhalf won the World Cup and why it does not matter to them whether Wales blow hot or cold.