Preview: All Blacks V Wales, 1st test
When the two proud sides descend on Carisbrook, the visitors, who have a illustrious history as one of the more decorated rugby nations, will try to arrest a record against a team that has earned the title as Wales’ ultimate bete noire.
Their record against the All Blacks at the dawn of the 20th century is unparalleled. Recognised as the first conquerors of New Zealand in test rugby, they had achieved the feat twice before any other Northern Hemisphere nation (England was second in 1936) and did it again before a second European power notched a rare All Blacks scalp (France in 1954).
However since then Wales have lost 21, as horrendous a losing streak as suffered by any nation against any opponent.
Despite reflecting on that history, many feel that the All Blacks are not the unconquerable point of reference as they have been in the past.
Last year they conceded the Tri Nations, the less prestigious (in terms of year’s running) Six Nations equivalent in the south; and in the process lost three straight games to the Springboks.
Still, while the All Blacks are not currently engaging in their typical rampage that takes place between World Cups in the professional era, they are still in terms of results beyond any other team outside the reigning World Champions.
Wales will attempt to break New Zealand coach Graham Henry’s incredible record of having only lost twice to Northern opposition since 2004. Only France has beaten them (twice) in that time for a ledger that reads All Blacks 39 – Northern Hemisphere/France 2.
The Red Dragons will also try to record their first win on New Zealand soil, attempting to record what would be only the All Blacks third loss on home soil since Henry has held the reigns, and only their 38th overall.
The All Blacks ushered in a new era against Ireland in their first test, fielding six debutants amidst a host of injured front line players and some out of form senior players.
As Wales have noted, it is difficult to assess what to make of the current IRB number one ranked sides first match.
Ireland’s lack discipline led to a red card to Jamie Heaslip, and a yellow card moments later to Ronan O’Gara, both acts of stupidity that Oxford will no doubt attach to their picture definitions of “brain explosions”.
But some analysis can be taken from two key points.
The All Blacks, as they have not done at times in recent years, revelled in the smell of Irish blood and ramped up their intensity to gallop to a 38-7 halftime lead. The ferocity of the “blackness” as it could be termed was a sight to behold.
The host’s ruck speed was magnificent, and their runners and power in the tackle gave new meaning to the term men versus boys.
But equally one must pay homage to the Irish response, effectively recording a 28-28 score line from their first score to the game’s last, although some of this was due to the All Blacks losing shape as a regimented unit as their bench was emptied
These two facts alone can give Wales plenty of heart, but at the same time puts the 2005 and 2008 Grand Slammers on red alert.
While it is difficult to say where the All Blacks are at, Wales are a side that is so frustratingly fickle that it is hard to say if they are – as Warren Gatland said – on the verge of a new golden era, or at risk of completely imploding.
In every match so far this year, they have shown glimpses of a marvellous attacking edge, but never has it been imposed to dominate an opposition.
Only against Italy in their final match of the 2010 Six Nations did they manage to string it together long enough to win convincingly win a test, coincidentally the only match Wales led at halftime during the tournament.
Against England they conceded a 20-3 lead to open the game and almost but couldn’t quite win, playing Scotland they came back from 21-9 down to triumph, versus France they were 20-0 down before coming close to upsetting the Grand Slammers elect, and ran out a 16-3 lead when hosting the Springboks before losing the match.
Bursts of brilliance to show potential, frustrate supporters, and establish themselves as a side unable to show that cherished trait of a world power – consistency.
With championship winning Cardiff and Ospreys players littered in the squad, they are good enough to win against a convalescing New Zealand, but surely patience must be running out with all involved with the group.
The All Blacks showed in the first half against Ireland that at their best they will be too fast, too co-ordinated and too confident to be challenged by a mixed Welsh outfit.
But in the second half they showed that they are indeed human, can be questioned at the set piece and can be frustrated without possession.
If Richie McCaw and Dan Carter – two men beyond any player in Welsh colours - inspire their team of veterans and new faces, then Wales will struggle at Carisbrook, where New Zealand has lost only five times in 37 matches.