reports from Johannesburg
Sitting in front of a huge photograph of the legendary Invincibles, the 1905 New Zealand tourists, the All Blacks hierarchy revealed the side to play Wales at Ellis Park tonight. It was an awesome line-up and that was just the management. The table was creaking beneath the presence of Colin Meads, Brian Lochore, Sean Fitzpatrick and Laurie Mains.
The contrast between that and Wales's announcement was startling. Having heard their opponents' team, Wales did not reveal their hand until the last minute - and what an odd hand it was. One remark from the management was that Wales had "selected a team to beat the All Blacks". The question is, have they?
Wales made 10 changes from the side that defeated Japan, four of them positional, and will blood three new caps for the biggest match of their lives. This is a funny time to start experimenting. Gareth Llewellyn, who has developed into a world-class lock, is at blind-side wing forward and Gareth Thomas, who scored three tries on the wing against Japan, is in the centre.
Llewellyn is there to win possession at the tail of the line-out but that is a whole new ball game for him. The impression is that some of the more experienced forwards have been rested for the crucial game against Ireland. Put another way, I cannot believe that if only one team went through from the group instead of two, Wales would have selected this side. If Wales qualify as runners-up to New Zealand they will meet the winners of Group D, either France or Scotland.
The point about fielding a below-strength team was put yesterday to Mike Hall, the captain, and he replied: "Where has the team been weakened?" Referring to Ireland's performance against New Zealand, Hall said: "Passion and mayhem take you only so far. You've got to have discipline and confidence. The All Blacks have got a lot to prove and they will feel the pressure from home just as the Welsh do."
Despite the changes, Wales have rarely gone into a match against the All Blacks with such self-belief. In the short time Alex Evans has been in charge the mood has changed. Scrum-half Robert Jones wins his 53rd cap, equalling Gareth Edwards' rec- ord. "We've got a new regime, new players, a new enthusiasm and we've prepared well," Jones said. "Over the last six weeks all we've talked about are our strengths. We've spent about 20 minutes on the opposition."
They would not have studied the statistics which show that since their last victory over the All Blacks in 1953, Wales have lost 11 in a row. In seven of those they failed to score a try and in the last five the differential in tries is 34-2.
Jones, who was in the side beaten 49-6 by New Zealand in the semi-finals of the inaugural World Cup eight years ago, said: "In the past we used to think that we didn't have a right to beat the All Blacks. That's gone. Alex has coached Australian sides that have beaten the All Blacks and he believes we are as good."
Evans worked the oracle for Cardiff this season, and there is a strong Cardiff presence in the side but, when he was asked had he had enough time to prepare with Wales, he replied: "Ideally no. But we will improve with every game."
The same can be said of the All Blacks, who were indebted to Jonah Lomu for digging them out of a hole against Ireland. "We gave away too much ball and we should have taken some of the intensity out of the match," Laurie Mains, the coach, said.
Tonight Lomu, all 6ft 5in and 19 stone of him, will be up against Ieuan Evans. Wales, befitting their new-found confidence, preferred to talk about the strengths of their right wing rather than the threat of the All Blacks left wing. "Ieuan is one of the great wings in rugby," Alex Evans said, "and he hasn't had the luxury of playing behind a good pack. We'll give him the opportunity to show his skills."
Gareth Thomas, a contemporary of Lomu's in schools rugby, said: "I know what he doesn't like and that's running around for 80 minutes. It's hard work when you're 19 stone. It takes a lot out of you." As certain as the role that will be played by Neil Jenkins and Andrew Mehrtens, two of the best goal-kickers in the competition, Lomu will be bombarded by high kicks from Robert Jones.
WALES v NEW ZEALAND
at Ellis Park, Johannesburg
A Clement Swansea 15 G Osborne North Harbour
I Evans Llanelli 14 M Ellis Otago
M Hall Cardiff, capt 13 F Bunce North Harbour
G Thomas Bridgend 12 W Little North Harbour
W Proctor Llanelli 11 J Lomu Counties
N Jenkins Pontypridd 10 A Mehrtens Canterbury
R Jones Swansea 9 G Bachop Canterbury
R Evans Llanelli 1 C Dowd Auckland
J Humphreys Cardiff 2 S Fitzpatrick Auckland, capt
J Davies Neath 3 O Brown Auckland
G Prosser Pontypridd 4 I Jones North Harbour
D Jones Cardiff 5 B Larsen North Harbour
G Llewellyn Neath 6 M Brewer Canterbury
H Taylor Cardiff 8 Z Brooke Auckland
M Bennett Cardiff 7 J Kronfeld Otago
Referee: E Morrison (England). Kick-off: 7.0 (ITV)Reuse content