The Millennium Stadium in Cardiff will on Saturday evening play host to a meeting between the champions of the two hemispheres. Wales and New Zealand both achieved the grand slam in winning the Six Nations and The Rugby Championship respectively but it is far from being billed as an unofficial world title decider.
Wales have lost five Tests in a row since securing the grand slam against France last March with Argentina and Samoa both successful in Cardiff this month while the All Blacks are unbeaten since August last year and their head coach, Steve Hansen, who was in charge of Wales a decade ago and oversaw a sequence of 10 successive defeats, will not be offering charity to his former employers.
Wales have scored one try in their two autumn Tests and that was an interception. They have conceded five and, while they have been handicapped by injuries, their selection policy has been compromised by a policy of rewarding players who live in Wales, rather than France or England. Their conquerors, Argentina and Samoa, had precious few home-based players.
"We have gone backwards," said the former Wales captain, Gareth Thomas. "The shame for me against Samoa was a pure lack of effort. The Samoans were coming into rucks and trying harder than us. They wanted the ball more and that was what was most disappointing. Senior players need to call the shots because they are the ones those with not many caps look up to."
The Wales defence coach, Shaun Edwards, fronted Monday's media call, flat-batting Thomas's observations and counter-attacking a New Zealand reporter who said the All Blacks were wound up by a remark he was said to have made a year ago to the effect that Wales would have beaten them had they made the World Cup final. Standing rather than sitting, he looked as if he would have been more comfortable in a dentist's chair.
"The pressure is on because we know that, if we don't perform, we could get embarrassed against the All Blacks," said Edwards. "I said after Wales had lost to France in the World Cup semi-final that we would have had a chance against New Zealand because they had several star players unavailable and were down to the fifth-choice outside-half, not that we would beat them. In a sporting encounter you always have a chance."
The Wales coach, Warren Gatland, is back in charge for the next two weeks, Australia following New Zealand to Cardiff, but he will then switch his focus to the Lions and play no part in the Six Nations campaign. "If Gatland being away has hampered things, it is the wrong decision by Wales to let him go," said Thomas, a former Lions Test captain. "I don't care how the Lions get on: my country comes first."
Wales are under pressure but Gatland has been there before, not least in 2010 when, after a barren autumn campaign, there were calls for him to be sacked. The coach will name his team on Tuesday with the centre Jonathan Davies and the hooker Matthew Rees expected to be fit for selection. No players have been added to the squad and calls for the return of Gavin Henson to add creativity to a back division which has largely operated behind the gainline have gone unheard.
"It is hard to put a finger on why we have not been scoring tries," said the wing Alex Cuthbert. "We are lacking a bit of direction and a bit of creativity out wide maybe. Teams are perhaps working us out more easily than before but we have class players and should be causing problems. We have to get back to basics and get the backs going."
Wales under Gatland have tended to defy the form, or lack of it, of their regions in the Heineken Cup. The Welsh Rugby Union is hoping to sign a new agreement with the four regions within the next month in an attempt to halt the exodus of players to England and France: in the past the union's policy has focused on the national side but it is now set to become dual purpose to prevent the level immediately below from collapsing.
"Perhaps regional form has been a factor this month‚" said the Wales full-back Leigh Halfpenny. "The Heineken Cup did not go well before we came into camp and there was no momentum that comes with winning. We have to try to create that ourselves, starting on Saturday, and I am sure there will be a few harsh words now Warren is back. We need to be honest and put our hands up."
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010
image: © zoonabar