The toughest thing for Mike Ruddock as coach will be to restore the belief his side played with last season. The self-belief they built up in beating England and winning the Six Nations' Championship. Ruddock has no warm-up match, whereas the All Blacks finished the Tri-Nations - and won it - as recently as the beginning of September.
True, some of the Welsh squad will be bang in form through playing for the last few weeks but as a team they have not been together since March, for goodness' sake. It's just another unfortunate knock-on effect of the Lions tour.
It's no secret how New Zealand will play - a very quick, open and expansive game. It's thrilling to watch unless you're trying to stop it. Wales cannot afford to play the up-and-out defence that the Lions tried so unsuccessfully, and one of the key aspects will be the system that Clive Griffiths as defensive coach comes up with. With guys like Tana Umaga and Dan Carter straightening the line and injecting pace, they hold the inside drift and create space out wide.
Wales have to be in their faces. They have to compete on every ball, and the forwards in the front five will have to be on their mettle. There are great battles to look forward to all over the field, notably between Stephen Jones and Carter at stand-off, and Martyn Williams and Richie McCaw on the openside.
Wales would have loved to have had Gethin Jenkins, Ryan Jones, Tom Shanklin and Gavin Henson available, but there is no point in dwelling on the injuries. The All Blacks have coped well enough without top players in the past.
Whatever the case, I believe that Wales are the underdogs, and a lot will depend on which centres they select. Without Henson, they may go for Ceri Sweeney at No 12. He is a ferocious tackler and has a good kicking game. Gareth Thomas is a world-class utility player: a quality filler wherever he slots in. I expect Kevin Morgan to be at full-back, and Gareth to be either on the right wing or at outside-centre.
Carter is a fantastic talent. I saw him a couple of years ago when he was at inside-centre, and straight away I thought: "This kid has something about him." At fly-half he can dictate the whole game with his passing, his little chips and his all-round vision. If the New Zealand pack go well on Saturday Carter will show us all just how good he is.
We know that Wales will try to be open and attractive. It was after the same fixture which the All Blacks won so narrowly last year that I wrote in this column "Wales are back". I thoroughly enjoyed it, and can only imagine the scenes if we pull it off this time.
This is the start of a long, tough autumn programme, and I sincerely think Wales are capable of winning all of their matches. That is how much the team have moved on. But, at the risk of hedging my bets, they could also lose their three matches against the Tri-Nations sides. Australia are always well organised and the Springboks have a good squad. As ever, the hint of the unknown is what makes rugby exciting.
As for Henson, I was disappointed that a Welsh newspaper chose to take pieces from my column last week and use them out of context. I would simply reiterate that from personal experience I know the trust that exists in a dressing-room environment and that it is dangerous to cross the line into talking about other players. Will those players be 100 per cent trusting of Gavin from now on, or will they be worrying what might pop up in his next book?
There is no need to harp on about this. I respect Gavin as a player and as a professional, and he has the attributes to become a great player. What he needs now is for his rugby to do the talking rather than his celebrity.Reuse content