Injured Carter's withdrawal gives Wales glimmer of hope
All Blacks' talismanic fly-half out with ankle injury as coach Gatland returns to lead Dragons
Saturday 24 November 2012
For Bradley Davies, the solution is simple. "We win on Saturday and we have celebration dinners for the next 50 years," the Cardiff Blues second row said, pondering how the Welsh Grand Slammers of the spring might turn the tide of public criticism that has accompanied their autumnal dip in form. "There'll be a statue in Llantrisant, my home town."
The question is how a Welsh team who played with statuesque mobility against Argentina and Samoa are going to find a way to beat New Zealand come the 5.15pm time of reckoning in the Millennium Stadium today. The good news for Davies and his colleagues is that the world champions will be without Dan Carter. The princely fly-half misses his team's tea-time test in the Principality after tweaking his right ankle in training on Thursday.
"Gutted not to be playing with these boys in this stadium tomorrow," Carter tweeted after accompanying his team-mates to the traditional eve-of-match "captain's run" last night. It is understood that the leading international points scorer of all time underwent an MRI scan yesterday before the decision was made to replace him with Aaron Cruden. His prospects of recovering in time for the Twickenham Test against England a week today are unclear.
The bad news for Wales is they will still be facing 15 men in black. They will do so, of course, with Warren Gatland back at the helm. The Kiwi who guided Wales to the World Cup semi-finals a year ago and to the Grand Slam last spring assumes the head coach reins from Rob Howley after time out recovering from a fall while cleaning windows at his New Zealand beach hut and preparing the groundwork for his mission in charge of the British and Irish Lions in Australia next summer.
Gatland, who played 17 games as a hooker for New Zealand but was never capped as an All Black in the Test arena, returned to Wales' training base in the Vale of Glamorgan on Monday, proclaiming tongue in cheek "the messiah is back". He also hinted at the possibility of a tactical variation or two in an effort to enliven a team who have fallen to rung No 8 in the world ranking ladder, and who were a plodding shadow of their dynamic 2011 World Cup and 2012 Six Nations selves in their opening two autumn tests – a 26-12 loss to Argentina and a 26-19 reverse against Samoa.
Asked how Gatland planned to change things, Davies replied: "Our forwards are playing in the backs. Our backs are playing in the forwards."
It just so happened that the 6ft 6in joker in the Welsh pack was wearing a team training top with a No 10 on the back, but it will take more than a cunning plan of Baldrickian proportions for Wales to overcome a New Zealand side who line up in Cardiff unbeaten in 19 matches. It will be a help, though, that Carter is not facing them in the All Black No 10 jersey.
The Crusaders maestro was at his orchestrating best at Murrayfield two weeks ago, wielding the creative baton as the World Cup holders ran in six tries and racked up 51 points against Scotland. During a training session in Pontypridd on Thursday, however, Carter pulled up sharply while putting in a kick and Steve Hansen, the All Blacks' head coach, will not take any risks with his chief playmaker, who has 162 points in nine Tests against Wales.
The opposition might have considerable difficulty in getting Carter but physical wear and tear has increasingly succeeded in doing so. The 30-year-old missed the latter stages of the World Cup last autumn after suffering a groin injury in kicking practice and has been absent from three Tests this year because of hamstring and calf problems.
Still, the All Blacks have yet to lose under Hansen, the former Wales head coach who succeeded Graham Henry in the wake of the World Cup. They have run in 11 tries and racked up 93 points in their two opening wins against Scotland and Italy. Wales have scored just the one try thus far this autumn: an Ashley Beck interception against Samoa.
They have not beaten the All Blacks since 1953, a barren run of 24 matches, and their prospects of ending 59 years of hurt have hardly been helped by George North joining an injured list that already included Adam Jones, Dan Lydiate and Alun Wyn Jones.
"I think we all realise, from one to 15, that we've all got to turn up and have 'nine out of 10' games," Davies said. "I think the biggest thing is the mentality. A lot of teams lose before they play the All Blacks because New Zealand are a very good team and sometimes that gets on top of you a bit.
"It's about getting our minds right, believing we can do it, and all of us putting in a 'nine out of 10'. If we do that, I think we can win."
Wales have known a worse time, of course. Indeed, during Hansen's two-year tenure they endured a run of 10 losses between November 2002 and August 2003. It remains the longest ever losing streak.
"This present Welsh team is different," Hansen said. "We were trying to rebuild. This Welsh side has won three Grand Slams and been World Cup semi-finalists. The recent criticism will have made them tighter. That'll make them more dangerous, I think."
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