I have a soft spot and a great deal of sympathy for the Welsh.
Sympathy first: they have to live next door to the English, have Charles as their Prince, and listen to their language being eternally mangled.
The soft spot: for 48 years they were the All Blacks’ most dreaded opposition. 1905 and 1935 and 1953 hurt. The Welsh ambition, often, has been to be the All Blacks of the North: a small player base energised by dreams of glory, overcoming the odds of money and numbers, playing with a skill and flair and heart that comes out of the very soil.
Of course they haven’t won against the ABs since 1953, but it’s been too damned close for comfort too often and, as they used to say, you never beat the Welsh, you only score more points than them.
They have had some mighty players, and have a few handy ones now. For my money, Jamie Roberts is the best centre in world rugby since Conrad Smith’s retirement. Dan Biggar can kick and kick and kick them from everywhere. Alun Wyn Jones is just a big diesel engine. Sam Warburton is a fine, inspirational captain who leads from the front.
On paper, though, the squad for this month’s three test series looks too thin for the task. Just not enough depth right across the park to overturn 63 years of heartache.
In Warren Gatland they have a coach as canny as they come. And, maybe, for him it’s an audition for the All Blacks job, just as Ted and Shag did their apprenticeship in Cardiff.
The All Blacks always start rusty. Always. And it will be worse this year having lost so many senior heads, especially in the backline. Kieran Read’s first job as proper captain will be to show that he can win ugly.
The New Zealand audience isn’t nearly worried enough. We’re just four days out from the first test, and nobody is screaming the house down with anxiety. Too relaxed by half.
You’d have to think that Gatland is targeting the first test as his best chance to sneak a win. And he only needs one win out of three to drown in free pints for the rest of his life in every pub in the principality. They’ll carry him from Pontypridd to Rhyl on their shoulders, scattering fragrant leeks in his path, and clasping him to their breasts as a true born son of the valleys. Twenty-five years from now every player in the Welsh team would be called Warren Jones.
All he has to do is get past Shag, who is himself cannier than a canned can thing.
Item 1: the first test, not the last, is at Eden Park. That in itself will knock some rust off, because it’s a fortress for the ABs.
Item 2: he’s as tough and unsentimental about selection as ever. Just ask TJ Perenara. Or Matt Todd who gets bypassed for Ardie Savea. Or putting the hard word on Keiran Read that the Olympics are nice and everything, but being captain of the All Blacks is what it’s all about.
Item 3: he’s talking up the expectations, not talking them down. Taking it to a new level, not re-building.
The road to Tokyo 2019 starts here. Time to get the anxious on people.