Ruddock sees need to take big scalp as trial by pace awaits Wales

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The Independent Online

On paper this match resembles a game of chess where two grand masters - Graham Henry and Steve Hansen - are pitted against a former pupil - Mike Ruddock. Wales coach Ruddock could not have had it much harder. He has to outwit two cunning New Zealanders, who for their part reckon they know all they need to know about Ruddock's squad, because the majority of them passed through either Henry's or Hansen's hands during their respective reigns as coach of the Welsh national team.

On paper this match resembles a game of chess where two grand masters - Graham Henry and Steve Hansen - are pitted against a former pupil - Mike Ruddock. Wales coach Ruddock could not have had it much harder. He has to outwit two cunning New Zealanders, who for their part reckon they know all they need to know about Ruddock's squad, because the majority of them passed through either Henry's or Hansen's hands during their respective reigns as coach of the Welsh national team.

"Steve Hansen will know a lot about our players," admitted Ruddock, "but we would like to think that we have moved on since then. A lot of things have moved on, so hopefully neither of them will be as up to speed as they would like." The question is though, will Wales be up to speed? However well they played against South Africa a fortnight ago and against the All Blacks and England during the World Cup, they still lost all those matches, a fact that the Wales captain, Gareth Thomas, pointed out earlier this week.

"Harping on about past matches is not good for the present team or its management," said the Wales full-back, who has been broadening his rugby horizons with Toulouse this season.

Nor indeed is talking up the opposition, although several of the All Blacks are worthy of mention, most notably the two new caps, the scrum-half Piri Weepu and the outside-centre Casey Laulala, whose name may sound like something out of the Teletubbies but moves a lot faster than Tinky Winky and Co.

Indeed if the New Zealanders are to be believed, he is so fast that he could break the world land speed record. And Laulala has the always-dangerous Aaron Mauger inside him. The back three of Mils Muliaina, Doug Howlett and Joe Rokocoko is arguably the most potent in the world, a trio of very fast runners, with the confidence to back themselves when the going gets tough.The fact that they have 70 tries between them in 86 caps tells its own story.

Of course possession of the ball is necessary for fly-half Daniel Carter, who has played full-back and inside-centre with equal aplomb in his time, to unleash the lethal back line.

But with a powerful front row, featuring seasoned props Tony Woodcock and Greg Somerville and hooker Keven Mealamu, Wales will need all their power and guile to get the upper hand at the set-piece.

It does not look much better in the line-out where Ali Williams and Chris Jack will make life difficult on Wales' throws, while being well capable of defending their own.

The openside flanker, Richie McCaw, making his debut as captain, also has the services of Mose Tuiali'i and Rodney So'oialo to pose problems at the breakdown and in the loose.

But as Ruddock said, you have to sort out your own game rather than worry about the opposition. To that end Wales have banned the use of the phrase All Blacks in camp this week, for fear it might suggest the New Zealanders are invincible.

"Everyone is excited about he way we are playing," Ruddock said. "We are just going to go out there and give it a blast. We respect the haka and we will use the time when it is being performed for our own mental preparations."

This Wales team's steely confidence certainly offers hope to the home fans among the 78,000 sell-out crowd at the Millennium Stadium this evening.

There has been a distinct pulling together of various units in the side - witness the collective effort by the pack against the Springboks a fortnight ago. The line-out features the battle-hardened Gareth Llewellyn partnering the rugged Brent Cockbain and they will make life tough for the New Zealanders.

The back row of Dafydd Jones, Michael Owen and Colin Charvis is capable of competing and is likely to give the All Blacks a hard time, certainly early on. It is in the front row that questions are raised. The perception is that they lack the beef up front which could prove fatal at the set piece.

But with more than half a century separating this Wales team from a glorious victory in 1953 and the centenary of their first meeting next year, there could be no better time for Wales to pull off a win.

"We need a big scalp," Ruddock said, "if only to encourage other big teams to come to play us more often." The Welsh knives are out. Whether they end up with a wig or the real thing is another matter.

* The New Zealand lock, Jono Gibbes, will leave return home tomorrow after failing to recover from a torn calf muscle he suffered in the build-up to the All Black win over Italy last week.

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