Playing New Zealand in front of the world at Stadium Australia was always going to be a "damage limitation" exercise for Wales, but Steve Hansen took the term further than most thought possible yesterday.
The canny Wales coach chose to limit the damage that the All Blacks can cause to his first team by making 10 changes to the side who beat Italy last week to earn the much-prized quarter-final berth. Hansen can be forgiven for saving his best until last, namely against England in Brisbane next week, and for "resting" his two star men, Iestyn Harris and Martyn Williams, from this "Suicide XV". Only Sonny Parker survives in the backs from Canberra and even he is a New Zealander.
Otherwise, there are first run-outs in this tournament for Garan Evans at full-back and the twinkle-toed Shane Williams on the wing. Tom Shanklin is giving the dubious honour of marking Joe Rokocoko, while the overlooked trio of Mark Taylor, Stephen Jones and Gareth Cooper are all given further shots at redemption.
But, in truth, rarely will redemption be as hard-earned. Despite the pack having a more solid feel to it than the back line - Jonathan Thomas making a welcome introduction on the flank and Robert Sidoli likewise at lock - Wales look on a hiding to nothing when they front up to a New Zealand team who do not seem to know where their brake pedal is.
With victory a universally accepted impossibility, self-respect is the Welsh order of the day as their captain, Colin Charvis, acknowledged yesterday. "When you get an opportunity to play against any of these teams you want to put in the best performance of your life because you are measuring yourself as a player and as a team," said Charvis, who appears on the open side tomorrow.
Any such measurement should take into account that Wales have not beaten the All Blacks since 1953 and have not come close to doing so since the Seventies. A more accurate representation of their respective merits in the modern age is the 40 points plus that New Zealand have averaged against Wales in their last nine meetings. The one bright spot for Wales on this All Black list is a gutsy display in Cardiff last November.
Reuben Thorne might have had this meeting in mind - when New Zealand only made sure of their win in the last five minutes - as he talked up the opposition's chances yesterday. "It will be good to have a good, solid contest. Hopefully they'll test us everywhere," the captain of the World Cup favourites said. "We certainly won't be able to breach the front line of defences as easily as we have in some other games and that will test our structure and our strategies."
They will also be playing for their places, especially with the centre Tana Umaga and the lock Chris Jack due to come back into the reckoning for next week's quarter-final against either South Africa or Samoa. That could spell even more bad news for Wales, because as Umaga's main rival, Leon MacDonald, said: "You are playing for your life every week, I suppose, and that's the way I'm definitely approaching it."
Playing New Zealanders any day is hard enough, but when their "lives" depend on it? Wales need to play the game of theirs in Sydney tomorrow.Reuse content