Wales will be under mounting pressure to avoid a sixth successive defeat as they chase a first-ever win over New Zealand on Saturday.
Wales will be under mounting pressure to avoid a sixth successive defeat as they chase a first-ever win over New Zealand at the Millennium Stadium on Saturday.
The hosts have suffered five Test losses on the bounce going into this clash, while the world champions are on a 19-game unbeaten run and looking to defend a 24-match winning sequence against their hosts that stretches back almost 60 years.
Over the course of the past fortnight Wales have been unrecognisable from the team that reached the World Cup semi-finals and then secured a Six Nations Grand Slam. Indeed, the highs of the Rugby World Cup and the Six Nations seem a distant memory.
Gone is the dazzling back play that has so often characterized Wales teams down the years, whilst the pack made no impression against Argentina and Samoa as they were dominated at the breakdown in both matches.
Another loss will not only be the Dragons' worst form slump since the 2002-03 season, when current All Blacks boss Steve Hansen coached Wales, but could also possibly relegate them outside the world's top eight nations in the IRB world rankings.
That would mean the Welsh being third seeds when the pool draw for the 2015 World Cup is made on December 3.
And after Saturday's hit-out, it doesn't get any easier for Wales with Australia looming over the horizon which could see the Wallabies complete an end-of-year whitewash for the hosts.
However, the return of Warren Gatland could be the tonic needed for Wales to redeem themselves in what is proving to be a chastening month of November internationals. Away on preparatory British and Irish Lions business for next year's tour Down Under while losses to Argentina and Samoa unfolded, Gatland is back in the hot seat this week tasked with transforming Wales' wilting fortunes.
“We've let ourselves down,” he said.
“I'm not going to be here forever and part of my role is to develop the playing and coaching staff. I've no regrets (about the Lions job). We've had a little dip and we need to get back on the horse.
“It is not a physical issue, we need to up the tempo and face the challenge. It is just about getting the head right.”
“A lot of the guys have had a bit of abuse on Twitter and it's about how you deal with that,” added Gatland.
“It's been quite personal for some of them. It's about dealing with a crisis for the first time. These are young men going through a challenging time and adversity will make them stronger. This has been the first time many of them have been under this kind of pressure.”
Hansen, meanwhile, believes the flak that has flown Wales' way during their dismal Test series will galvanise them on Saturday.
Gatland's opposite number is completely on guard for the threat Wales could pose, especially after they have been so widely written-off.
“I don't have too much sympathy for them – I am in the opposition camp these days!” he said.
“But what it does do is I know it will make them tighter. Invariably, when they get criticised, they get tighter. It will make them more dangerous, I think.”
Perhaps. But whilst Wales have been suffering badly since their southern hemisphere excursion earlier this year, the All Blacks have gone from strength to strength – although the length of involvement must be starting to tell on bodies now.
Wales would need to have a significant uplift in performance levels to seriously test the All Blacks while the visitors have the goal of a finishing 2012 unbeaten.
New Zealand, however, suffered a potential injury setback involving fly-half superstar Dan Carter who pulled up in training with a leg twinge. A decision on his fitness is expected to be made when the All Blacks conduct their final pre-match training run at the Millennium Stadium. If 93 time-capped Carter is ruled out, then Aaron Cruden would be favourite to replace him.
Ones to watch:
For Wales: Scarlets midfield powerhouse Jonathan Davies has recovered from a groin problem to make his first appearance of the November series on Saturday, replacing Ashley Beck. His attacking threat was sorely missed as toothless Wales managed just one interception try and one linebreak from the two games. Greater creativity will be needed if the Six Nations champions are to have any hope of taking the game to the world champions and the return of Davies is a major boost.
For New Zealand: An unsung contributor to the side has been blindside flanker Liam Messam. He started the season wanting to be a consistent performer for the All Blacks and he has clearly achieved that goal. After leap-frogging Adam Thomson and Victor Vito, Messam has once again been retained in New Zealand's back row for perhaps the biggest start of his career and maybe a chance to finally claim a more permanent role. And the Chiefs co-captain will be looking to repay Hansen's faith with a stellar outing. He has been dumped plenty of times, most cruelly before last year's Rugby World Cup, but now has been given the opportunity to make the number six jersey his own.
Head to head: Jamie Roberts v Ma'a Nonu: Two world class centres face-off in this mouth-watering midfield battle. Both number 12's are often used as battering rams for their respective teams, but the Welsh will be relying on Roberts – 1.93m tall and 110 kilograms – to inspire their stagnant attack and bring Wales' back three into the game… easier said than done with Ma'a Nonu breathing down his neck.
2010: New Zealand won 37-25, Cardiff
2010: New Zealand won 29-10, Hamilton
2010: New Zealand won 42-9, Dunedin
2009: New Zealand won 19-12, Cardiff
2008: New Zealand won 29-9, Cardiff
2006: New Zealand won 45-10, Cardiff
2005: New Zealand won 41-3, Cardiff
2004: New Zealand won 26-25, Cardiff
2003: New Zealand won 53-37, Sydney
2003: New Zealand won 55-3, Hamilton
Prediction: Humiliation awaits against the All Blacks unless an out-of-sorts Wales can summon up a monumental recovery. And even with Gatland back at the helm, one feels he faces a Herculean task attempting to turn things around. New Zealand by 15!
Wales: 15 Leigh Halfpenny, 14 Alex Cuthbert, 13 Jonathan Davies, 12 Jamie Roberts, 11 Liam Williams, 10 Rhys Priestland, 9 Mike Phillips, 8 Toby Faletau, 7 Sam Warburton (c), 6 Ryan Jones, 5 Luke Charteris, 4 Bradley Davies, 3 Aaron Jarvis, 2 Matthew Rees, 1 Paul James.
Replacements: 16 Ken Owens, 17 Gethin Jenkins, 18 Scott Andrews, 19 Aaron Shingler, 20 Justin Tipuric, 21 Tavis Knoyle, 22 James Hook, 23 Scott Williams.
New Zealand: 15 Israel Dagg, 14 Cory Jane, 13 Conrad Smith, 12 Ma'a Nonu, 11 Julian Savea, 10 Dan Carter, 9 Aaron Smith, 8 Kieran Read, 7 Richie McCaw (c), 6 Liam Messam, 5 Sam Whitelock, 4 Luke Romano, 3 Owen Franks, 2 Andrew Hore, 1 Tony Woodcock. Replacements: 16