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Former headmaster he may be, but New Zealand All Black coach Graham Henry is not generally reckoned to be one of nature’s orators. He might, though, be tempted to take a cue from somebody who unquestionably was – US president Franklin Delano Roosevelt – and proclaim that all his team has to fear is fear itself.
The All Blacks’ match with Wales at the Millennium Stadium, Cardiff on Saturday brings them to the end of their long 2006 season so far ahead of their rivals as to almost have disappeared from sight. A lead of nearly nine points over France at the top of the International Rugby Board’s official rankings does their superiority only limited justice. Their advantage is underlined by the recession being endured by every other member of rugby’s so-called ‘Big Five’ nations.
Australia and South Africa have been thumpingly beaten by Ireland during the autumn internationals, England and France flattened by the All Blacks. Upward mobility has been reserved for those generally reckoned to be in the next echelon – Ireland, now rated third and looking still better, and Argentina. Judgment on Wales will be clearer after Saturday.
The search for All Black inadequacies has as yet proved fruitless. Bleddyn Williams, whose judgment demands respect as an authentic immortal in his own right, captain of Wales when they last beat New Zealand in 1953 and a watcher of every great team since, reckoned their 2003 back division was the best he had seen. This one must be reckoned even better, by virtue of prodigious outside-half Daniel Carter.
When the All Blacks departed for Europe, one astute judge confided that he feared weaknesses in both scrummage and line-out. Neither France nor England – well-equipped in these respects, whatever their other limitations – was able to locate them. They inflicted a record England home defeat, a margin of 21 points, without playing especially well. When they did play well, France, European champions, host and second favourites for next year’s World Cup, were not so much beaten as vapourised, 47-3 at Lyons.
Neither scrum nor line-out being an especial Welsh strength, Saturday’s hosts must look elsewhere for a possible advantage. Nor are they likely to deliver the sort of big-hitting defence with which South Africa occasionally unsettle the New Zealanders. Where they may see hope was in their brief discomforture when England managed a spell of high-tempo, quick-recycling rugby – the sort of game on which Wales thrive, particularly from turnover ball. It is a risky game, particularly against a team led by the predatory Richie McCaw, but calculated risk is the only way Wales can win.
So should New Zealand fear Wales? Hardly, after 18 consecutive victories – the longest ever run between two established rugby nations – spread over more than 40 years. Fear itself for New Zealand is history, particularly World Cup history. As the qualifying process for next year’s tournament continues, it is possible all 20 qualifiers will also have played in Australia three years ago. Sixteen have already made it and Japan, who play Korea for the Asian place on Saturday in Hong Kong, can make it 17. Georgia will make it 18 if they beat Portugal in the home-and-away European playoff starting in Lisbon on Saturday while Uruguay will be confident of becoming number 19 against the losers in the repechage, leaving Tonga to take an all but preordained final place by disposing of the Asian runner-up.
Déjà vu is the last thing New Zealand needs, after failing in the last three World Cups after looking certain winners. The further ahead they get in pre-World Cup years, the greater the pressure, expectation and fear of failure becomes. That history and those fears, as much as any opponent, are what New Zealand have to overcome in the next year.