Warren Gatland is the wild card in this weekend's test in
Cardiff - the All Blacks obviously wary of the profound impact
the returning Welsh coach is likely to have.
Wales are in a dark place. They have been ravaged by injury
and had chunks taken out of them not only by the Samoans but
also a visceral public and a savage crew of former legends.
The national side have endured five consecutive defeats and
the mood in Wales is moribund. The professional clubs are all
but broke and the star men are leaving in their droves -
giant centre Jamie Roberts the latest to reject a contract
with Cardiff as he eyes a new life in Paris.
There isn't a magic button to press and fix things quickly,
but Gatland, who has not officially been coach since July as
he's on secondment as British Lions supremo, will fancy he
can at least slap a giant plaster on things and get a better
performance out of his beleaguered troops.
He returned, as was always planned, to the helm this week.
The lure of the All Blacks was too hard to resist and,
besides, this is the game Wales have been targeting, the one
that will define their November series.
A nation is holding its breath, believing, much as they used
to in another New Zealander, Graham Henry, that the
impossible is possible, that a broken scrum can be repaired,
a misfiring attack can be redirected and a defensive line
tightened and quickened.
The All Blacks are obviously wary. Knowing Gatland as they
do, they sense he can nudge something extra out of Wales. All
Blacks assistant coach Ian Foster is especially wary. Having
worked with Gatland for two years at the Chiefs, he knows his
former assistant's methods.
Wales were Grand Slam winners this year, World Cup
semifinalists last year and it doesn't feel right they are in
such a pickle. Foster, for one, isn't buying it.
"We have kept an eye on their last two games and they have
not played as well as they would have wanted - obviously," he
said. "But all that has done is highlighted that it is a game
you have to turn up prepared for week in, week out and, quite
frankly, we have talked about us building through this tour
and making sure we prepare well because, if you don't prepare
well, if you don't do Sunday to Friday well, then you can get
bitten on Saturday.
"We expect a very physical team. They carry hard, they like
the breakdown and they like to play lots of phases, lots of
continuity and they like to defend with a bit of linespeed.
Knowing that doesn't make it any easier [to play them]."
Wales lacked intensity in their previous two tests. Gatland
should instil that.
Wales lacked clarity in their gameplan. Gatland will simplify
the strategy and remove ambiguity.
Wales lacked a bit of passion and belief. Gatland's return
will bring that as, much like Henry, he carries a respect and
aura among the players that puts them on edge.
And if the prospect of all that doesn't keep the All Blacks
focused, then Andrew Hore, a veteran of four previous clashes
in Cardiff, can sound a warning.
"One of the last times we were here we thought we had the
game won and then Jimmy Cowan threw an intercept pass and
they almost scored and got a draw."
- Gregor Paul