Wales take on New Zealand this weekend in a game that, similar to last weekend’s misguided matchup between the All Blacks and the USA, appears to be poorly timed and leaving one team with one hand tied behind its back. Wales are without a number of key players doing club duty in England’s domestic Premiership this weekend, and while we don’t doubt for a second the resolve of Welsh Coach Wayne Pivac’s charges, for many of them it could be a bridge too far against an All Black side suffering no such constraints.
New Zealand come into this game with a full complement of superstars, and although there are some key names missing such as scrum half Aaron Smith, this is not an All Black side most of us would want to meet in a dark alley let alone on a rugby pitch. Big, powerful, fast and exceptionally talented, All Black Coach Ian Foster has picked a side that few can argue with.
Wales on the other hand have a blend of wise old heads and rather exciting albeit slightly raw talent. It’s very much a case of a souped up muscle car put together in someone’s garage taking on a Formula 1 car. There is room for surprises and Wales will bring some real grunt to this contest, but it’s hard to see them going toe to toe with an All Black machine that has rarely faltered so far this year. However,take a fired up Welsh side, give them the underdog label and then stick them in front of an ardent Principality Stadium crowd and who knows what might happen?
A time for cool heads at the coalface
Wales’ Hooker Ryan Elias may not have quite the same number of Test caps as his illustrious opponent Codie Taylor on Saturday, but he has put in some solid performances in the Welsh jersey. While his club side Scarlets may be struggling a bit at the moment, his former boss at Parc Y Scarlets, Welsh Coach Wayne Pivac is fully cognizant of what Elias can bring to the Welsh party.
New Zealand’s Codie Taylor on the other hand will be feeling the heat on Saturday. There is no question that he has not been at his best of late, with his work at the set pieces less than stellar at several key moments in New Zealand’s 2021 season. Consequently the pressure is all on him as opposed to his Welsh opposite number, as the New Zealander has everything to prove with his rival Dane Coles breathing down his neck for the starter 2 jersey.
As a result despite his lack of experience against the kind of powerhouse front row that New Zealand are bringing to Cardiff, Elias may be the more comfortable of the two Hookers. With all the spotlights being on his opposite number, he may be less prone to mistakes and allowed to enjoy the privilege of measuring himself against one of the best sides in the world.
The ultimate Welsh warhorse
Welsh Captain and second rower Alun Wyn Jones is a legend plain and simple. We all marveled at his superhuman return from a dislocated shoulder this summer after Captaining the Lions against Japan. In a mere four weeks, he was back at it leading the Lions against arguably THE most physically demanding side on the planet – the Springboks. Wales are a completely different beast with him on the park, and the youngsters in the squad will benefit from his leadership and calmness on the pitch against seemingly overwhelming odds. Jones’ battle with his opposite number, New Zealand’s Brodie Retallick will be worth the price of admission alone this Saturday, with the All Black giving away far too many penalties for New Zealand Coach Ian Foster’s liking at the moment.
New kids on the block – but impressive works in progress
New Zealand back rower Ethan Blackadder comes from a rather impressive pedigree. His father Todd Blackadder has Captained the All Blacks and currently is regarded by many as the best Coach in New Zealand and some would argue should have got the top job. But ancestry aside Blackadder is definitely the real deal, albeit a bit rough around the edges still. He’s a versatile player who can when needed switch to the second row. His ball security may not be the best at times but this is definitely a player to watch as New Zealand starts to draw up their training squads for the next World Cup.
Meanwhile, Wales’ Taine Balsham is arguably the most exciting newcomer to take to the field for Wales on Saturday. He looked good off the bench this summer against Canada and consequently is rewarded with this first start for the Men in Red. As your first start, it doesn’t get much bigger than this but Wales need to find some fresh talent in the back row to shore up their stocks, given that both Justin Tipuric and Josh Navidi are out with injury. Balsham is a natural fit despite the up and down form so far this season of his club side the Dragons in the URC. With fellow Dragons Ross Moriarty and Aaron Wainwright alongside him the youngster should feel right at home.
Is his star waning?
All Black scrum TJ Perenara has had to live in the shadow of Aaron Smith all his career, and it would appear that this year it is starting to show. He now has Brad Weber hot on his heels to secure the second choice 9 jersey, and it would appear that Weber is starting to pull ahead. Perenara has just not been that sharp in the last two years. Famous for his constant chirping at the referees, it has unfortunately cost his team on a few occasions, as he has spent more time trying to officiate than actually play the game as well as giving away silly penalties. While his ability to rattle the opposition is clearly part of his skill set, he simply doesn’t have the eye for space and opportunity that Smith and Weber do.
He’ll be up against Wales and Cardiff Blues Tomos Williams who can be a real live wire, but is also likely to remain oblivious to Perenara’s endless commentary. The race for the number one spot on Wayne Pivac’s team sheet for the scrum half berth is definitely on, and we’d argue that Williams’ eye for opportunity may see him get the nod come the end of November.
A welcome return to the Welsh fold
Wales need an understudy for Dan Biggar and they need it quickly. Rhys Priestland who makes the bench for Wales for this match, has put in some impressive performances, but given his age it is unlikely he’ll be a prospect for the next World Cup and beyond. As a result Gareth Anscombe, who ironically is also qualified to play for New Zealand, is the real deal and his return from injury is probably the best early Christmas present Wayne Pivac will get this year, barring a possible earlier than expected recovery of Welsh backrower Justin Tipuric. Anscombe’s playmaking skills are solid and they’ll need to be up against Test Rugby’s ultimate opportunist New Zealand’s Beauden Barrett. Where Anscombe may not be the silky operator Barrett is, his goal kicking is infinitely more reliable than the All Black’s. If it comes down to a goal kicking penalty contest then our money’s on Anscombe.
It’s hard to disagree with the bookies, pundits and people infinitely wiser than ourselves when it comes to matters of the oval ball, who argue that this is a Test that has come a week too soon. Without some of their England based players Wales simply cannot match the pedigree that this All Black side has to offer. However, what we can’t agree with is the fact that everyone seems to have written Wales off before referee Mathieu Raynal has blown the first whistle. We have a hunch that by doing so Wales head into this match feeling very comfortable with the underdog label, as well as much of the pressure being all on their opponents’ shoulders. While the assumption that New Zealand will win, is probably a fairly comfortable one, we still think this is going to be a hard fought and closely contested affair. New Zealand have shown that they can be vulnerable this year and scoreboard pressure is something they don’t seem to cope well with. There’s enough talent in this Welsh squad to recognize any potential weaknesses and how to exploit them.
While it may be a Test too soon in terms of personnel as far as Wales are concerned, we don’t think you’ll want to miss it. Wales will ask New Zealand plenty of questions and whatever the outcome this should be an entertaining Test match. Remember miracles do happen, ask any Munster supporter about that famous day in 1978. Hopefully this Welsh squad will have watched a replay of that memorable match for inspiration to help give them a shot at slaying the Goliath wearing black on Saturday!