This is why I play rugby. As a kid you dream of playing for Wales and then you dream of playing for Wales against the All Blacks. This is it and it is awesome.
For any rugby union player there is something extra about this fixture. To put it simply, if you can’t motivate yourself to play this game then you are in the wrong sport – in fact you shouldn’t be in sport at all. The All Blacks are historically the best team in international rugby union. It is the ultimate test – you are going to be pushed to the limit in every facet of your game for 80 minutes. A chance to play against the All Blacks at home is magical. There is really no other word for it.
This New Zealand squad has such strength in depth they could play two world class XVs. There is so much experience in their side – Richie McCaw has over 100 caps, Dan Carter is not far off. So many of them have played at the pinnacle of rugby union for the past decade so there is leadership, coolness under pressure – these are great players, players who I’ve admired growing up. The chance to pit yourself against these guys, to challenge yourself to get the better of them is second to none. As a rugby union player, it is one of the highlights – the most enjoyable match to play.
It is as much a mental challenge as well as the obvious physical one. You are out there watching the way they play, the way Carter plays and you are constantly trying to second guess what they are doing. You have to be so sharp. I’ve played against them four times. We went on tour in 2010 and had two Tests and I’ve played them at the Stadium twice as well – we lost all four but we played some good rugby against them. To have a chance of bettering that record every single one of us has to be on the money today.
The only way you are going to challenge these guys is go out and play rugby against them. We need to impose ourselves physically and tactically. There is no point in holding back, kicking the ball and playing percentages. You need to be accurate, make them tackle, take it to them. Every facet of our game has to be spot on otherwise…
A key contest will be the gain-line battle. Whether we are carrying or defending, we have to perform better there. We didn’t do that against Samoa and it cost us. Every carry was a positive one for them while we struggled to get much front-foot ball , either due to poor set pieces or not crossing that gain-line with our carriers. We want to play on the front foot. If you watch New Zealand’s rugby they first of all make sure they play on the front foot – all of a sudden it’s an easier game. We have not done that over the last couple of weeks.
The last two results, against Argentina then Samoa, haven’t been good enough and with those two defeats the pressure on us grows. That’s what professional sport is like – you lose a couple of games and it mounts up. As a team over the last couple of years we have performed at our best when the pressure has been at its greatest. That’s when we have delivered in the Six Nations and in the World Cup and we need to do that now against southern hemisphere teams.
There has been plenty of criticism aimed our way over the last couple of weeks. I understand it, we all do, and can’t argue with much of it – there is a lot that is warranted. We criticise ourselves. Believe me nobody feels it more than the players.
We had a day off this week, a time to switch off and get away from rugby for a night. We know everything is about that 80 minutes this afternoon and you can’t afford to spend all week thinking about it – by the time you get out on the pitch you run the risk of having worried away all your energy. You can’t afford to carry that baggage from week to week, day after day. It’s the same during a game – if you make a mistake you have to shrug it off and not let it weigh down the rest of your performance. You keep smiling, you enjoy training and you should perform better – that’s no different to any job is it? If you enjoy it you are likely to do it better. It’s important to have a laugh, it helps everyone stick together.
It has been good to have Warren Gatland back this week. Warren is a huge part of the machine and has been great for us since 2008. For a player he is very honest. The guys like working with him and it’s been an awesome environment – which is what makes the end product, what we have done on the pitch, so frustrating for everyone involved. It’s been a good laugh this week – he’s put everything in place for this game.
Another key man back in place is having Jon Davies alongside me again in the centre. We have worked great together over the last couple of years. I couldn’t get out to Australia because of my knee and he’s missed the first two games so it’s great to be back together in red. He’s proved over the last couple of years that he is a huge asset.
Losing George North late on is another cruel injury blow but it gives a chance to Liam Williams. Off the pitch he is a bit of a joker, on it he chucks everything into every game. His commitment is all – and that’s a special attribute. He is deceptively strong, quick and good under the high ball. Certainly he will be challenged this weekend but he is more than capable of rising to this special occasion.