Saturday, November 7, 2009

A real battle starts between Wales V New Zealand

SO after a week of claim and counter claim, we’re down to the real business at the Millennium Stadium.

What was already going to be an intense battle, played out in a pressure-cooker atmosphere, has been cranked up several notches further as a result of Warren Gatland’s mischievous pre-match comments.

Let’s just say the Wales coach has stoked up the heat with his claim that New Zealand had lost their “aura of invincibility”.

It’s been the talking point of the last few days, but the time has come for actions to speak louder than words as Wales seek a first triumph over their old foe since 1953.

Gatland’s comments might have been made to instil real belief into the minds of his own Wales players they really can overcome the psychological barrier and end 56 years of hurt.

But what they have undoubtedly done is serve to whip up a storm with New Zealand accusing Wales of trash talk.

It was a typical ploy of Gatland. His modus operandi in the build-up to a big match is to create controversy ... and then blame the media for it!

He’s got form, doing likewise the last time he was in charge of preparations for a Wales game when we met Ireland in the Six Nations decider.

Gatland’s claim that the Welsh players “disliked” their Irish counterparts more than any other team caused a pre-match frenzy and backfired spectacularly once the two sides lined up for battle.

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Gatland’s remarks were probably designed to fire up his own players and rile the opposition, but they were widely condemned in Wales and Ireland and he was forced to backtrack.

However, the damage had been done. Gatland had fired the Irish up to produce a performance which enabled them to summon up the courage to seize victory with a last gasp drop-goal from Ronan O’Gara.

If Ireland didn’t ram Gatland’s words down his throat, Paul O’Connell made scathing reference to them after the game.

This time, in my view, Gatland has gone and handed Graham Henry his team talk by questioning the ability of the New Zealand class of 2009.

If nothing else, it will certainly have focused Kiwi minds on beating Wales after comfortably defeating Australia in Tokyo and having to endure a gruelling journey to Cardiff.

Had their eye been off the ball, so to speak, it might have helped the Welsh cause. But there is no chance of complacency on the part of New Zealand now. Gatland has ensured that.

Of course, he was perfectly entitled to make his remarks and he has a point, for this is a New Zealand team in transition.

They certainly aren’t the supreme side of 1989 or 2005, with supermen thin on the ground these days, the sublime Dan Carter and Richie McCaw apart.

The loss of scrum-half Mike Phillips and full-back Lee Byrne could be significant with incoming No 9 Gareth Cooper searching for his best form and James Hook a novice as a last line of defence.

It’s got the potential to be a rip-roaring contest, but I fear New Zealand, having had a warm-up against Australia, will settle it in their favour.

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