Warren Gatland, the Wales coach, knows enough about this rain-sodden corner of the union world – the farmlands of Waikato, where, in recent memory, one British and Irish Lions touring team was swept away on a floodtide of raw rugby energy and another suffered the painful indignity of trial by New Zealand Maori – to understand the nature of tomorrow's contest with the All Blacks. He was born here, after all. "It's nice that we're in town," he said, a trifle uncomfortably, before spending the next half-hour talking about respect and redemption.
Last week in Dunedin, just before England chiselled out a face-saving victory over a weakened Wallaby side on the other side of the Tasman, the Welsh played half a game's worth of decent Test rugby against a New Zealand outfit armed with Richie McCaw and Daniel Carter, respectively the best forward and the finest back in the sport. Half was never likely to be enough and they ended up losing 42-9. As second Tests are generally harder for a touring side to win than first ones, despite immediate English experience to the contrary, Gatland and his players have something of a challenge on their hands.
"It's important to me that we leave New Zealand with the respect of the people and I know what that takes," remarked the one-time All Black hooker, who played in the Waikato front row when the 1993 Lions were obliterated and coached his home province to the national title in 2006 before being head-hunted by a Welsh hierarchy chastened by their national team's early departure from the last World Cup. "Whatever you might achieve in rugby in the northern hemisphere, it doesn't mean Jack Shit in these parts. If you want the respect of rugby folk around here you have to perform here, in front of them.
"If you take someone like Ryan Jones" – at this point, he nodded towards the Wales captain, sitting to his right – "you see a player who came late to the Lions tour of New Zealand in 2005 and played well enough to make a lasting impression. He earned the respect we're talking about. Equally, players with big reputations have travelled here with the Lions and others, and left without respect. This is a chance for our players, especially those in the pack who by their own admission fell off the pace in the second half last week, to redeem themselves."
While the All Blacks were able to call on a player as good as Luke McAlister, one of the Maori matchwinners against England in Napier on Wednesday, as cover for Carter, whose chances of playing tomorrow are in the balance because of a calf strain, Wales will start with the 20-year-old Ospreys outside-half Dan Biggar, whose appearances to date have been against Canada, the United States and Samoa – worthy opponents, but some way short of a New Zealand side playing anywhere in the world, let alone at home. Gatland always hoped to run Biggar in one of these Tests, and the thumb injury that has prevented the 89-cap veteran Stephen Jones training this week gives him the perfect excuse.
Biggar is one of two players drafted in by the coach – the Scarlets centre Jonathan Davies, born in the English Midlands, replaces Andrew Bishop, currently incapacitated by a hand problem – and sounded confident enough after receiving confirmation of his promotion. Asked whether he might be a bag of nerves in the hours before kick-off, he replied: "I don't think you'd be human if you didn't get nerves. Playing New Zealand in their own backyard and going up against some of the best players in the world... of course you are going to get nervous. People who have 80 or 90 caps will probably give you the same answer. But I'm the sort of player who really enjoys an occasion like this. I'd like to think I'll really express myself rather than go into my shell."
Ryan Jones, the captain, plays alongside Biggar at club level and knows enough about him to share that confidence. "I live near Dan, we share lifts together most days and I know he feels he was destined to get a chance like this," said the No 8. "He knows he has the talent and believes in it. That's what you want from someone who wears the No 10 on his back."Reuse content