The betting folk will tell you Wales have no chance. A middling performance in the Six Nations followed by a dour match against England does not make for great portents for Wales’ chances in the land of the Long White Cloud. The passionate folk will tell you that this is the men in red’s best chance in years. McCaw’s gone, Carter’s gone; they may be world cup winners but the All Blacks are now a shadow of their former self and going up against a strong and experienced Wales team may be too much for them. Then there’s me, and I’m going to tell you that everyone else is wrong.
Let’s start with the pessimists. It would take the most passionate Welshman to deny that Wales have been below their highest standards recently. Their fearsome attacking capacity has become more and more one dimensional and despite a good showing at the World Cup there has been little fire from the men from the land of dragons. Wales have long set store by their physicality but livelier teams have started to run rings round these strong men. A propensity to run at defenders rather than around them has not yielded any satisfactory results and Halfpenny’s lively running and aerial ability is sorely missed by his compatriots. On their day Wales can outmuscle the best but when muscle is the only string to their bow teams with more variety will easily dampen their attacking fire and expose defensive weaknesses. And no team shows greater variety than New Zealand.
Wales have long set store by their physicality but livelier teams have started to run rings round these strong men
However, whilst this has been a longstanding problem, there is now more to suggest that Warren Gatland and co. might have the means to fix it. The World Cup saw Wales in a more experimental mood; placing players with different styles and in different positions. Although injury may have made necessity the mother of invention on that front these experiments weren’t exactly a dismal failure, as Jonathan Davies’ magnificent try against England can testify to. Wales were more willing to attack out wide and use forwards as support runners and although it didn’t pay off in the short term there may still be benefits in the long run. During the Six Nations when Wales attempted to return to their usual fare of muscling up the field in a straight line they found themselves rudely rebuffed, but when they resorted to more imaginative tactics, such as against Scotland, success and crowd entertainment more readily came their way. The terrible performance against England may have left something to be desired but one got the feeling that the Welsh coaching staff had long since deigned the game to be a throwaway spectacle and there were more than a few flashes of attacking brilliance during those eighty minutes, with players like Faletau running great support plays on the wing of all places.
when [wales] resorted to more imaginative tactics … success and crowd entertainment more readily came their way
The general consensus has long been that Wales need to add more to than just brute force to their strategy and we might just be seeing that come to fruition. It may well still be in the development stage and this might mean that against the All Blacks any potential problems will be ruthlessly exposed and exploited but there can be no greater stress test for any team. As long as Wales don’t simply fall back on brawn over brain then they might still make a very competitive test series out of it yet. Even if they don’t come back with total victory there’s a strong chance that Wales will come back from New Zealand a more exciting and imaginative side.
Now for the optimists. Wales may potentially be on the chance of an attacking renaissance but for many New Zealand’s golden era of rugby is supposedly on the decline. The big talk of the town has been how inexperienced and exposed New Zealand are after the World Cup. After all the six of the most experienced and greatest players in the history of the sport retire. New Zealand after last October are without their leaders and their talismans; no more Nonu and Smith pairing at centre being able to work off each other in a way that only years of practice can create, no more Mealamu belting out the Haka to inspire his team and no more captain fantastic.
Surely Wales have no better a chance with a team missing so much experience? Oh my sweet summer pundits why have you not been paying attention? Read and Cane as captain and openside might both be trying to fill in for McCaw but both of them have long been prepared for this moment and they’re not the only ones. Looking at the team sheet for Saturday almost every single man in the line-up has been part of the All Blacks squad in one form or another for at least the last two years. Some have even all but replaced more experienced squad members; Dane Coles has been the starting All Black hooker over Mealamu for some time now. Even the uncapped Ardie Savea has had experience training with the All Blacks in recent years. To assume that this All Black squad is inexperienced or unprepared would be to drastically underestimate them and to underestimate the All Blacks is a recipe for almost certain defeat.
Both of the common narratives surrounding the Wales tour have their problems, but to predict that Wales will fall to an ignominious whitewash or triumph in every test is not something any pundit feels confident in doing. Suffice to say that if Wales continue to try more experimental rugby, even if they are ultimately unsuccessful, it will set them in good stead in the coming years. They can’t take anything for granted during this tour either and relying on the All Blacks to be weaker because of inexperience will spell doom for any chance Wales have.