Rugby: All Blacks wary of Gatland return

Warren Gatland.
Warren Gatland.
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