The odds on Wales ending their 68-year wait for a win against New Zealand in Cardiff on Saturday are slim, with the head coach, Wayne Pivac, missing an entire side because of injuries and player unavailability.
One has to go back to 1953 for the last Welsh victory against the might of the All Blacks and, as he prepares to coach against the land of his birth, Pivac is fighting with one hand tied behind his back.
The match at Principality Stadium will take place without Wales’s England-based players as the match falls outside World Rugby’s designated Test window. That means Premiership clubs do not have to release their non-England contingent to play international rugby.
The result is Pivac instantly losing Dan Biggar, Taulupe Faletau and Louis Rees-Zammit plus the squad members Nick Tompkins, Callum Sheedy, Thomas Young and Christ Tshiunza. George North, Leigh Halfpenny, Justin Tipuric, Josh Navidi, James Botham, Leon Brown, Dan Lydiate and Josh Macleod are all injured. That makes 15 players out of action.
The Wales attack coach, Stephen Jones, tried to be upbeat on Monday when he confirmed the British & Irish Lions full-back Liam Williams was back in training after having his appendix removed. Jones admitted, though, that it would be a “big ask” for Williams to feature this weekend.
A rib injury means Ellis Jenkins is also a big doubt to face New Zealand. The Guardian understands the flanker has done no significant training since Wales got together last Monday.
“We are hoping for Ellis to be up and running this week,” Jones said. “It’s a matter of ticking various boxes – like running with the team and the contact element – as the week goes along.
“Liam is doing everything he can to be available. He is ticking every box, but you do need some volume in the legs as well. He’s not had many sessions this season.
“He’s working very hard because he wants to play but we as coaches understand where he is. It’s important we remember we’ve got more games in November, so we have to be clever with how we use Liam.”
Jenkins, who has only just returned from a horror knee injury, is unlikely to be risked and, if he is unfit, the 21-year-old rookie Taine Basham would have to start on the openside flank.
It will be a big ask for him to go toe-to-toe against players such as Ardie Savea and Sam Cane. Wales would also have no recognised back-row cover on the bench.
Pivac responded on Monday by calling into his squad the wing Alex Cuthbert, who has not been capped since 2017.
Asked if Wales had a psychological barrier stopping them from beating New Zealand, the prop Tomas Francis said: “No, I don’t think so. People used to say that about Australia and then we beat them twice, so I don’t think there is a hoodoo over it. New Zealand are a very tough team.
“You have to perform to the best of your ability to be in the game. You always want to challenge yourself against the best and New Zealand have always been up there since I was a kid as the best team.”
Francis would have joined the list of England-based players unavailable this weekend had he not swapped Exeter for Ospreys this summer.
“It’s been frustrating in the past when I’ve had to miss out on these games. This is a great one to be involved in,” he said.
“I wouldn’t say it’s frustrating to have guys unavailable. Those are the rules and we knew them from the start.
“It’s exciting for the boys who will get to wear the jersey. If you play in England, you sacrifice at least one autumn game – that’s a choice you make. It will be tough against New Zealand – it always is – but proving people wrong is not what drives us.”
Wales might be Six Nations champions but they have never had the squad depth of England and Ireland and they are hurt by absentees more than other northern hemisphere nations.
Many have questioned the merit of the New Zealand fixture given Wales’s state of play but the bottom line is the match will be the first game at the Principality Stadium to have a capacity crowd since March 2020. The fixture is worth up to £4m in profit to the Welsh Rugby Union and the reality is the chief executive, Steve Phillips, needs the money.
Asked if the players were aware of the criticism of the New Zealand fixture, Francis said: “We get to play another Test – how can that be a negative? It’s another opportunity to represent your country, put on the shirt and give your all. That’s what we play the game for.
“Everyone can say it’s outside the Test window but it’s a chance to play the All Blacks in a packed stadium. You wouldn’t turn that down, would you? The fact that we get to play four Test matches instead of three is great.”
Wales (likely side to face New Zealand): McNicholl; Lane, Halaholo, Davies, Adams; Anscombe, T Williams; W Jones, Owens, Francis, Beard, AW Jones (capt), Moriarty, Basham, Wainwright