Warren Gatland has decided to take a huge gamble as he tries to end Wales’ barren run against the All Blacks, with the Dragonhood losing 24 times since the famous 13-8 victory in the Queen’s coronation year of 1953.
Outside centre Jonathan Davies is back in the team for Saturday’s game at the Millennium Stadium, even though he has not played for four weeks since picking up a shoulder injury. Now he is being thrown into the fire immediately against the best side in the world, despite no game time this autumn.
Having made wholesale changes against Fiji last Saturday, Gatland, the Wales head coach, has reverted to what he deems his strongest line-up – the same side that began the game against Australia two weekends ago – as well as the reintroduction of Davies.
It is Wales’ first chance since the Six Nations to use the established midfield partnership of Davies with Jamie Roberts, the pairing that was so successful on last year’s British & Irish Lions tour to Australia.
“He’s excited about the partnership with Jamie, which he hasn’t had for a while,” Gatland said.
“It’s always a risk when players think they might be underdone. But with quality and experienced players, hopefully that’s as seamless as possible. Hopefully, they’ll be able to rekindle that relationship and, hopefully, that works for us.”
Davies admitted he had been far from his best for club side Clermont Auvergne prior to his injury and faces a stern test as he is almost certain to come up against the formidable pairing of Sonny Bill Williams and Conrad Smith.
Looking ahead to the game, Davies, who passed a fitness test on Monday prior to his selection, said: “I thought I’d be fit sooner. I’ve worked really hard to be fit, hopefully now I can deliver the performance.”
The unluckiest player to miss out on a starting place is Scarlets’ Liam Williams following his man-of-the-match display at full-back in an otherwise unconvincing 17-13 victory over Fiji.
Leigh Halfpenny returns to the side following injury, his goal-kicking meaning Williams drops to the bench. Also back from injury in the back line are Rhys Webb and Dan Biggar, the Ospreys half-back duo. In the pack, Gethin Jenkins has been ruled out with injury while all seems to have been forgiven and forgotten with Richard Hibbard. He was caught in a club-versus-country disagreement last weekend when selected for Gloucester on the bench after Wales had excluded him to play Fiji, having deemed he was not fully fit.
Gatland said Wales were partially to blame for the situation and said he would “learn from the situation so it doesn’t potentially happen again”.
The established trio of Dan Lydiate, Sam Warburton and Taulupe Faletau are reunited in the back row. Lydiate has been without a club since being released by Racing Métro, but has since been offered a central contract by the Wales Rugby Union, one of a dozen deals Gatland expects to be sent out to players’ agents this week.
That back-row trio will be tasked with keeping the pressure on New Zealand. “If we get in their faces and put them under pressure we can get that confidence and self-belief,” said Gatland.
In the build-up to the defeat by Australia, all the talk was of conditioning. Against the country of his birth, Gatland insisted it is solely about rugby. After the poor display against Fiji, how desperately Wales need to deliver.
Study links rugby union with brain damage
Constant blows to the head from playing rugby union may accelerate brain ageing and potentially lead to early dementia, according to a Welsh academic, Professor Damian Bailey, who carried out research on 280 past and present players.
The International Rugby Board already accepts there could be a link between repetitive head injuries and long-term problems. But Bailey’s work could be the first study suggesting a clearer link. The IRB said it would not comment until the study is published while the Welsh Rugby Union, which issued guidance on concussion in September, said it plans to meet Bailey to discuss his research.