LONDON, Nov 23 (Reuters) - Embattled Wales captain Sam Warburton has attempted to find a gleam of hope amid the gloom before the European rugby champions try to reverse current form and recent history against New Zealand on Saturday.
Since completing a third grand slam in seven years last March, Wales have lost five consecutive tests. The sequence includes upset losses to Argentina and Samoa in their first two fixtures of the November international season.
Now they face New Zealand and Australia on consecutive Saturdays in the knowledge that they have not beaten the All Blacks in 24 matches since their last triumph 59 years ago.
This month, while Wales floundered, the world champions gave their reserves a run and still defeated Scotland and Italy by comfortable margins. The world champions will now unleash their full-strength team on Wales and then England in the following week.
”I guess there is no pressure on us now because nobody will expect anything next Saturday,“ Warburton said this week. ”That is sport, that is why there are underdogs, underdogs can beat the favourites.
“The players appreciate that if they were fortunate enough to beat the All Blacks then it would almost make them immortal. I think Wales would go crazy.”
Wales have not suddenly become a lost cause and they experienced form slumps between the grand slams. They have also suffered the inevitable spate of injuries experienced by all teams in the relentlessly physical professional era, with wing George North the latest casualty.
Still, few people in the principality share the optimism that Warburton is publicly obliged to voice and one try in the last two matches, an interception against Samoa, tells its own story in a nation which rightly prides itself on the national team’s attacking prowess.
“DESPAIR AND DISARRAY”
“Welsh rugby is in despair and disarray,” wrote Barry John, the gifted flyhalf in the only British and Irish Lions to win a series in New Zealand.
“Put simply, we are facing a very serious situation. I can’t remember anything as acute as the decline of this Welsh team in a matter of a few months.”
Welsh fullback Leigh Halfpenny, one player whose reputation has not suffered in a fraught November, agrees that the poor form of Wales’s four regional teams on the European stage could have affected the national side.
“It may be a factor,” he said. “The Heineken Cup did not really go well for the regions. With the Cardiff Blues we haven’t won too many games, the habit of winning is not there at the moment.”
New Zealand, still smarting from the 18-18 draw with Australia last month which halted their seemingly remorseless advance to a world record-equalling 17 consecutive wins by a leading nation, have another goal in prospect.
Victories over Wales and England followed by two over France next year would equal the record of 23 unbeaten matches set by their 1987 World Cup-winning side.
“This New Zealand team is one of the best rugby sides to have played the game and probably the best All Blacks side ever,” said Wales’s New Zealand coach Warren Gatland, who resumes control of the side for the remaining tests against the All Blacks and Australia.
“It will be a privilege to be able to test ourselves against them.”
For their part, the New Zealand management are taking the resolutely pragmatic approach which characterises the most successful nation in rugby history and concentrating simply on the task in hand.
“We have known since the World Cup that this would be the game that they (Wales) would be targeting in this autumn series,” said head coach Steve Hansen. “Any recent performances or results won’t have any bearing on this match.” (Editing by Clare Fallon)