A brace of notable rugby milestones await in Cardiff on Saturday with Beauden Barrett and Alun Wyn Jones both set to cement their status as modern-day icons. Barrett will win his 100th cap, having been named at fly-half in a powerful New Zealand side, while Jones is poised for his 149th Test for Wales, beating Richie McCaw’s world record of 148 appearances for a single nation.
At just 30, Barrett could be among the few with a chance of overtaking Jones one day and, after the 104-14 rout against the USA last weekend, has now drawn level on 37 tries with the great Jonah Lomu and Tana Umaga. His first job, though, will be to steer a strong All Blacks team around the Principality Stadium with Richie Mo’unga selected on the bench.
The All Black management are clearly keen to make the day a memorable one for Barrett, who made his debut against Ireland in 2012 and has been on the winning side in 84 of his 99 Tests. “He’s a big part of this team, he’s a key leader, he’s vice-captain on this tour and he’s an influencer on and off the park,” said the All Blacks’ head coach, Ian Foster. “I can’t speak more highly about his contribution as a person to the black jersey. The chance to play his 100th Test at this stadium against Wales is really special.”
With Brodie Retallick and Sam Whitelock back together in the second row and the brilliant Will Jordan also included on the right wing, the Wales coach, Wayne Pivac, was not far off when he likened facing New Zealand to fighting Mike Tyson. Pivac, though, insists the hosts can fill the James “Buster” Douglas role and grab a shock win in Cardiff, despite yet another injury withdrawal in the form of the Lions hooker Ken Owens.
The starting XV named by Pivac is notable for the reappearance of the fit-again Gareth Anscombe after more than two years but around 20 players are now missing through unavailability, illness and injury. Owens has a bad back and will now have a scan to determine whether he will be available for the rest of the autumn, with Ryan Elias stepping up to the starting front row.
There is an all-Dragons back row comprising Ross Moriarty, Taine Basham and Aaron Wainwright but the most significant selection is at fly-half, where Anscombe has been given the nod to start ahead of the experienced Rhys Priestland. It will be the 30-year-old’s first international appearance since suffering a knee ligament injury against England at Twickenham just before the 2019 World Cup. While he has since returned to the game for Ospreys, he now faces a major challenge against the country whom he has previously represented at under-20 level.
Pivac, another New Zealander, also knows exactly what is coming but insists Wales, who have not beaten the All Blacks since 1953, will be up for the fight. “As with ‘Buster’ Douglas against Mike Tyson, every now and again you get a massive upset,” he said. “It’s been a difficult build-up but big challenges bring the best out of people and hopefully that’ll happen at the weekend. We want to go out and prove people wrong.”
It will be no easy task, with Dan Biggar, Louis Rees-Zammit, Taulupe Faletau and Callum Sheedy heading the list of 10 unavailable England-based players. Justin Tipuric, George North, Leigh Halfpenny, Dan Lydiate, Josh Navidi, Ellis Jenkins and Liam Williams are all injured, the last of these just back in full training after an appendix operation.
The Scarlets backs Johnny McNicholl and Johnny Williams both feature with Pivac also able to rely, as ever, on his captain who, including his 12 Lions Tests, is about to play his 161st international. “He’s such a great role model,” Pivac said. “It’s fantastic he’ll pass Richie McCaw but, typically, it’s about the team having a great performance, not him.”
Despite a damp weekend forecast, the roof of the Principality Stadium will be open because of Covid-19 regulations but Pivac is still expecting a decent atmosphere. “There’s a sense of: ‘Let us loose.’ I’m going to feel very Welsh this weekend. You want to test yourself against the best.”