Preview: Wales v New Zealand
World Cup champions New Zealand go into their Test match against Wales as overwhelming favourites.
World Cup champions New Zealand go into their Test match against Wales as overwhelming favourites, as they seek to defend a 27-match winning run in their November internationals dating back to 2002.
But it could all have been so differently scripted a year ago, after a flamboyant Welsh side performed so well at the World Cup and then went on to win a third Six Nations Grand Slam in eight years.
Consistency, the key element the All Blacks have nailed down, has well and truly deserted Wales, a loss for whom on Saturday would represent a sixth consecutive defeat, their worst run of defeats since 2003.
Defeats over the last two weeks by Argentina and Samoa, combined with the three-Test losing tour to Australia in June, mean that Wales have not won a match since early June when they beat the Barbarians 30-21.
And history will definitely not be on Wales' side come Saturday. The match is the 29th Test match between the two teams, with the All Blacks having won 25 times, and Wales' last victory coming way back in 1953.
New Zealand are also unbeaten in 19 matches over the last 15 months, with their last defeat in an autumn series being a 31-28 loss to England in 2002.
This time around, they have already dispatched Scotland (51-22) and Italy (42-10) with ease, coach Steve Hansen even having the luxury of experimenting with his starting line-ups to give all of his 32-man squad a run.
But for Wales, Hansen has fallen back on a no-nonsense selection, choosing to field the most experienced XV of any nation in the November internationals so far, with 746 Test caps, compared to 529 for Wales.
The core of captain Richie McCaw, playmaker Dan Carter, centre Ma'a Nonu, hooker Andrew Hore and loosehead prop Tony Woodcock have all played more than 70 internationals for New Zealand.
"We have always known that this game will be a fiercely contested match... we have known since the World Cup that this would be the game they would be targeting in this series," Hansen said.
"So any recent performances or results won't have any bearing on this match."
Carter could be an injury doubt after New Zealand media reported that he limped out of training on Thursday.
One startling statistic ahead of the game is the try-scoring records of each team.
Wales have notched up just five tries in their last five games; by comparison, the All Blacks have scored 22.
Wales' hopes received a dent when winger George North was ruled out late with injury, and coach Warren Gatland will be hoping his return to the helm might aid his team to rediscover their cutting edge.
"No one is more disappointed than the players and the coaches with how things have gone in the last two weeks," said Gatland, who has spent the last two weeks scouting as the British and Irish Lions coach for next summer's tour to Australia, Rob Howley having filled in for the losses to Argentina and Samoa.
"This New Zealand team is one of the best rugby sides to have ever played the game, and probably the best All Blacks team ever, so it will be a privilege to be able to test ourselves against them."
Players to watch:
For Wales: With the midfield combination of Jonathan Davies and Jamie Roberts restored there could be some excitement if the backline gets to see some quality possession. Leigh Halfpenny and Rhys Priestland are other key players, while the injury-enforced absence of George North places Liam Williams in the spotlight. No.8 Toby Faletau has been well below his best in the year-end Tests, while captain Sam Warburton was dropped last week and would like to make a statement of his own.
For New Zealand: Actually you can just sit back and enjoy how well they function as a unit, some of the sublime handling and the brilliant counter attacking. However, with Dan Carter having been forced out with a leg injury, it places Aaron Cruden in the spotlight and maybe even get Piri Weepu a run at first receiver later in the game. That should not disrupt their rhythm though.
Head to head: Look no further the midfield showdown - Jonathan Davies and Jamie Roberts (Wales) against Conrad Smith and Ma'a Nonu (New Zealand), which brings with it crafty distribution and some really strong running. Toby Faletau (Wales) have not been at his best, but he will have to be against the world's best No.8 in Kieran Read (New Zealand). Of course there is the openside showdown - Sam Warburton (Wales) up against Richie McCaw (New Zealand), both captains and both very crafty men who knows how to push the envelope.
2010: New Zealand won 37-25, Cardiff
2010: New Zealand won 29-10, Hamilton
2010: New Zealand won 42-9, Dunedin
2009: New Zealand won 19-12, Cardiff
2008: New Zealand won 29-9, Cardiff
2006: New Zealand won 45-10, Cardiff
2005: New Zealand won 41-3, Cardiff
2004: New Zealand won 26-25, Cardiff
2003: New Zealand won 53-37, Sydney
2003: New Zealand won 55-3, Hamilton
Prediction: There is no doubt the All Blacks are favourites and by some margin. However, they are occasionally (very rarely, but just occasionally) prone to a bad day at the office - such as their last Bledisloe Cup encounter with Australia. If they have another day like that, Wales will have a chance. Our prediction is for New Zealand to win comfortable - by 15 points, or even more.
Wales: 15 Leigh Halfpenny, 14 Alex Cuthbert, 13 Jonathan Davies, 12 Jamie Roberts, 11 Liam Williams, 10 Rhys Priestland, 9 Mike Phillips, 8 Toby Faletau, 7 Sam Warburton (captain), 6 Ryan Jones, 5 Luke Charteris, 4 Bradley Davies, 3 Aaron Jarvis, 2 Matthew Rees, 1 Paul James.
Replacements: 16 Ken Owens, 17 Gethin Jenkins, 18 Scott Andrews, 19 Aaron Shingler, 20 Justin Tipuric, 21 Tavis Knoyle, 22 James Hook, 23 Scott Williams.
All Blacks: 15 Israel Dagg, 14 Cory Jane, 13 Conrad Smith, 12 Ma'a Nonu, 11 Julian Savea, 10 Aaron Cruden, 9 Aaron Smith, 8 Kieran Read, 7 Richie McCaw (captain), 6 Liam Messam, 5 Sam Whitelock, 4 Luke Romano, 3 Owen Franks, 2 Andrew Hore, 1 Tony Woodcock.
Replacements: 16 Dane Coles, 17 Wyatt Crockett, 8. Charlie Faumuina, 19 Brodie Retallick, 20 Victor Vito, 21 Piri Weepu, 22 Beauden Barrett, 23 Ben Smith.
Date: Saturday, November 24
Venue: Millennium Stadium, Cardiff
Kick-off: 17.15 (17.15 GMT; 06.15 Sunday, November 25 NZ time)
Expected weather: The roof will be closed, which creates the impression of a dry Test. However, the roof has been open all week, a very wet and miserable week, which will make for soggy underfoot and a pitch that will cut up later in the game. High of 13°C and low of 5°C
Referee: Craig Joubert (South Africa)
Assistant referees: Jérôme Garces, Greg Garner (England)
TMO: Graham Hughes (England)
AFP & rugby365