Venue: Eden Park, Auckland – Date: Saturday, 11 June 2016 – Kick-off: 08:35 BST
The opening test of a series that could be dignity splintering for Wales hones into view and the visitors are not going to win this game or any other in the next three weeks.
The All Black have some changes after the retirements of a glut of greats post RWC2015. In any normal circumstances a team with such a high proportion of transition would be vulnerable and give some hope to their opponents but Wales fans will have looked at the Super Rugby performances, then taken the team selection in, then probably had a little quiet cry to themselves.
Gatland has made five changes of his own to the side that warmed up for this by losing convincingly 27-13 to a second string England whose fly-half, George Ford, missed 14 points due to kicking like he had Toblerone boots on. It looks a much better line-up compared to two weeks ago and a decent side compared to any other international team out there. But, the players have not been the cause of Wales’ issues in the past two years.
There are defining moments for many coaches when they realise that what has worked thus far is no longer doing the job. Great coaches seize these moments and use them to define their legacy by demonstrating they have both the ability and the bravery to change their approach. Gatland could and should seize this tour as the time when he finally accepts that his previous success means nothing in a changing rugby world and implements a tangibly different approach for his players. Let the players offload (it is currently not only discouraged by coaches but not allowed at all according to reports), allow Liam Williams to use his gifts from fullback, give George North an opportunity to get into the game more, set Faletau’s impressive skils loose from the four metre area around the tackle he is apparently shackled to and for Christ’s sake let Jamie Roberts pass the bloody ball. If they can do this and keep that steep trap defence intact, then they will return home with some measure of self-esteem, whatever the result.
The last thing Wales fans want is to lose with the same problems present that have been highlighted repeatedly. Losing they can handle, depressing repetition they cannot. New Zealand fans will probably also enjoy beating a team that attempts to play some rugby rather than doing an impression of 15 large men headbutting a boulder and hoping it will cleave in two.
B&M Prediction: Wales by 10. Only joking, NZ by 15
Spotter’s Badge: Aaron Smith and Rhys Webb display such a level of simultaneous cheeky enthusiasm that they are mistaken for the half-time vaudeville tribute act.
New Zealand: Ben Smith, Waisake Naholo, Malakai Fekitoa, Ryan Crotty, Julian Savea, Aaron Cruden, Aaron Smith; Kieran Read (captain), Sam Cane, Jerome Kaino, Brodie Retallick, Luke Romano; Owen Franks, Dane Coles, Joe Moody.
Replacements: Nathan Harris, Wyatt Crockett, Charlie Faumuina, Patrick Tuipulotu, Ardie Savea, TJ Perenara, Beauden Barrett, Seta Tamanivalu.
Wales: Liam Williams (Scarlets), George North (Northampton Saints), Jonathan Davies (Clermont Auvergne), Jamie Roberts (Harlequins), Hallam Amos (Newport Gwent Dragons), Dan Biggar (Ospreys), Rhys Webb (Ospreys), Gethin Jenkins (Cardiff Blues), Ken Owens (Scarlets), Samson Lee (Scarlets), Bradley Davies (Wasps), Alun Wyn Jones (Ospreys), Ross Moriarty (Gloucester), Sam Warburton (Cardiff Blues, captain), Taulupe Faletau (Newport Gwent Dragons).
Replacements: Scott Baldwin (Ospreys), Rob Evans (Ospreys), Tomas Francis (Exeter Chiefs), Jake Ball (Scarlets), Ellis Jenkins (Cardiff Blues), Gareth Davies (Scarlets), Gareth Anscombe (Cardiff Blues), Scott Williams (Scarlets).