Wales take on friend and foe

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"Of all New Zealand's relationships in sport, none had been so precious as that, in rugby, with Wales." So wrote Terry McLean, doyen of New Zealand sports journalists, who died this year. On Saturday at the Millennium Stadium, Cardiff, that friendly rivalry reaches its 21st instalment.

It is 99 years since Wales first played New Zealand in arguably the most significant of all rugby matches, catching two nations at a formative moment so that Wales' 3-0 win furnished imperishable legend on both sides. New Zealand, that most self-consciously British of former colonies, formed its closest relationship with Wales precisely because it furnished fewer settlers than England, Scotland or Ireland. The Welsh were a rarely encountered fantasy race, the only other people who loved rugby as much as New Zealanders did.

That near-century divides neatly into two halves. Wales won three out of four in the first half-century. Keith Davis, scrum-half of the 1953 All Blacks, recalls: "Wales was the match that mattered. Of course we wanted to win against England and the other Test matches. But Wales was the one."

That 1953 game was won by Wales 13-8 after flanker Clem Thomas kicked riskily across field. Olympic sprinter and wing Ken Jones beat Ron Jarden to what McLean described as the "bounce of the century" and All Black reserve prop Peter Eastgate still considers the "biggest fluke in the world".

Fifty-one years on, 19 of the 30 players survive. The 10 All Blacks have taken little pleasure in the divergence of national fortunes since then, although New Zealand's last narrow victory, in 1978 after lock Andy Haden had dived dishonestly from a line-out, was viewed by most as recompense for ill-luck and poor refereeing in 1953.

The past 26 years have brought a series of massive All Black wins, bringing the sequence since 1953 to 16. Defeat in 1953 ended John Tanner's Test career, but he says: "Hearing Wales' results has been like learning that your younger brother is in trouble."

Pleasure at Wales' vastly improved performance last time the teams met - New Zealand's epic 53-37 win in last year's World Cup - was almost as acute in Nelson and Rotorua as in Neath and Caerphilly. The two remain linked by a common rugbyhistory and a similar worry - that the larger, richer neighbour who once provided a nationally therapeutic punchbag is now making efficient use of its greater weight.

England and Australia have won three of the last four World Cups. Yet victory over New Zealand today would still mean more to Wales than beating either of those current giants. Wales face a team coached by New Zealanders Graham Henry and Steve Hansen, who previously coached them.

Two weeks ago Wales ran South Africa close, a team who finished first to New Zealand's third in this year's Tri-Nations championship. If they achieve a feat that was beyond the great Wales teams of the 1970s, nobody will be happier than Bleddyn Williams, now 81, who has written: "Proud as I am of being Wales' last winning captain against New Zealand, it is a distinction I would very much like to lose."

Huw Richards is the author of Dragons and All Blacks, Mainstream Books, £16.99

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