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Braced for impact: Are you ready for Wales v New Zealand?

By South Wales Evening Post  |  Posted: November 23, 2012

  • ANGERED Steve Hansen

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ARE you sitting comfortably? Or are you in the brace position ahead of the visit of the All Blacks to Cardiff tomorrow?

Certainly, the announcement from the Wales cockpit on Monday was akin to suggesting that while no-one should panic, there could be a spot of turbulence ahead with the risk that the odd mountain top could be clipped.

"We know if we don't perform, we could get embarrassed by the All Blacks," said Shaun Edwards.

Okay, it wasn't like in the dim and distant past when Wales geared up to face southern hemisphere opposition while coming close to borrowing lines from the stewardess in Airplane! "There's no reason to become alarmed, and we hope you enjoy the rest of your flight. By the way, is there anyone on board who knows how to fly a plane?"

Warren Gatland's return to the fold brings back to full strength a coaching team that delivered a Grand Slam just eight months ago, and this week has seen an almost tangible sense of belief seeping back into Welsh ranks after the damaging defeats by Argentina and Samoa.

Players sound more confident, Jonathan Davies is back after injury, Gatland is promising his team will try something different — "take a few risks", rather than just look to limit the damage against world rugby's number one team.

Someone who had spent the past 13 days on Neptune might even start believing an apocalypse could yet be averted.

But if the same individual found the time to check the form of the sides who will meet at the Millennium Stadium — well, what do you think?

Almost as interesting as how the players have been shaping up this week have been the mind games between the coaches, with Steve Hansen dredging up ancient quotes that supposedly spilled from the mouth of Edwards in more prosperous times for Welsh rugby.

"They wanted to play us in the final of the World Cup and told us they were going to beat us. This is their opportunity to prove that," said Hansen after his side beat Italy last weekend.

There have been hungry Rottweilers more relaxed about giving up bones.

Edwards's claim that he was misquoted cut little ice with the man in charge of the All Blacks.

You'd think with New Zealand on a run of 19 games without defeat, compared to Wales's sequence of five matches without a win, the All Blacks would just rock up and play rugby. But Hansen is a man who looks for any hook to hang a performance on.

If Rhod Gilbert had made a joke about a New Zealander this week, that would have been enough to prompt a declaration of war.

If he'd had a little fun at the expense of the All Blacks, a Kiwi expeditionary force would have had boots on the ground in Penarth before bedtime.

All Edwards said was that had Wales retained a fit side and come up against New Zealand in the World Cup final they would have fancied their chances against them.

Given that a 14-man Wales lost by just one point to France in the semi-finals, and the French took an All Blacks team minus Dan Carter to the wire in the final, the former rugby league man's take on things was surely fair.

Are we now saying a side can't even speculate that they can beat the All Blacks?

If so, the Kiwis' psychological grip on the sport is tighter than anyone had realised.

You really do wonder if Hansen would have been anything like as bellicose if Wales had Adam Jones, Dan Lydiate and Alun Wyn Jones playing this weekend.

Gatland has steered clear of baiting the Kiwis, but he is right when he says Wales are likely to lack nothing in terms of strength and power against Hansen's team.

They field a crunching 108st back division, even without the injured George North, while bulk isn't a problem for the home pack, either, with all but Sam Warburton tipping the scales at 17st-plus.

But questions remain, not least the one posed by the head coach at the team announcement, about whether Wales could mentally tune themselves to the level required to beat New Zealand.

"It's not a physical issue," he insisted. "It's just getting the head right about facing a daunting challenge and getting excited about it."

Only Wales's players will know whether they truly believe they can become the first Welsh side in 59 years to defeat the All Blacks. If not enough of them have that belief then the long wait will extend to 60 years as surely as night follows day.

Wales could get embarrassed? As if 24 defeats in a row against the Kiwis since 1953 wasn't enough cause for a reddening of the collective cheeks.

Some Wales players were none too impressed with criticism they received from former national skipper Gareth Thomas alleging a "pure lack of effort" compared with their Samoa counterparts last Friday.

Thomas probably chose his words loosely, but if he meant the islanders displayed greater vigour at rucks and in contact than Wales, then he wasn't wildly off the mark.

Rob Howley's side did appear jolted by the opposition's commitment.

They were hit out of their stride. Tomorrow, the Welsh players will not have time to breathe let alone think.

The All Blacks will deny them space, exert pressure in contact, attack strengths as well as weaknesses and maintain a high tempo for 80 minutes.

"When England played them in 1997, many of our players were sick at half-time — such is the intensity of playing the All Blacks," Lawrence Dallaglio has said.

The fitness gap has closed since then. But there is still the issue of being able to sustain a tempo, which isn't easy when you are jumping from playing Zebre and Connacht to the All Blacks.

There are also the issues of skill, technical ability, decision-making and awareness.

Up front, Wales will be up against one of the all-time great forwards in Richie McCaw, a player who knows his way around a ruck like Alan Sugar knows his way around a boardroom.

And while Wales have muscle to spare behind, they have no-one with the guile, craft and majesty of Dan Carter, another of these Kiwis whose name is going to echo down the years.

Wales must hope the visitors will be bemused by what they have encountered this week — anarchy near Cardiff Bay, with Edwards crossing swords with a Kiwi journalist at a press conference, a former skipper lambasting the team from the sidelines, players reporting abuse from Saturday-night loners on Twitter, Gatland accusing the media of trying to cause a rift between star flankers, players hitting back at press criticism of team-mates.

But this is where the talking stops.

If Rhys Priestland wants to be widely acclaimed as the "incredible talent" that Gatland says he is, then he needs to run the game with authority and avoid messing up four-to-two overlaps as he did against Samoa.

If Sam Warburton wants to reassert himself over Justin Tipuric, then he needs to step up to the mark against McCaw.

If the Welsh front five want to prove themselves, in a line-up that starts without Gethin Jenkins, Richard Hibbard, Adam Jones, Alun Wyn Jones and Ian Evans, then this is the time to do it.

Even then, Wales will do supremely well to make a contest of it. Fasten those seat-belts. The ride could be bumpy.

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