All Blacks v Wales: Coach Ian Foster brushes off low expectations for understrength home side

All Blacks coach Ian Foster refuses to bite on claims that an understrength Wales will prove cannon fodder for his team at Cardiff on Sunday morning (NZ time).

The Rugby Championship winners will take on the reigning Six Nations champions in a much-anticipated fixture between the top rugby sides from each hemisphere in front of 75,000 fans at a soldout Principality Stadium.

Welsh captain Alun Wyn Jones will surpass former All Blacks captain Richie McCaw as the world's most-capped player with his 149th appearance, while first-five Beauden Barrett will celebrate his 100th game in the black jersey.

But Wales coach Wayne Pivac has had to plumb his depth chart, with up to 20 absentees through injury or clubs refusing to release players, threatening to take the gloss off the occasion.

Foster is clearly unimpressed that his team have been set up for an ambush, with local media already installing them as virtually unbackable favourites for the contest.

"I find it very hard to cheer up pessimists, so I won't try to change their minds," he says. "All I know is it's a test match - All Blacks v Wales - and it's a sign of the times that there are always players missing through injury and stuff.

"This scheduled's been in the itinerary for a long, long time, so it hasn't surprised people, but if some people want to not like it, that's their choice." 

All Blacks v Wales: Coach Ian Foster brushes off low expectations for understrength home side

The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has added another wrinkle to the usual hazards of international touring and Foster has also had to navigate a Rugby Championship campaign without several of his most experienced players for one reason or another.

Veteran lock Sam Whitelock and first-five Richie Mo'unga have only recently joined the touring party, after helping their respective partners through childbirth, while halfback Aaron Smith will miss the trek altogether for the same reason.

Incumbent captain Sam Cane and hooker Dane Coles have returned from injury, but have lacked opportunity to play their way into the line-up against Wales, while locks Scott Barrett and Patrick Tuipulotu have returned home early from their expected three-month absence.

Despite the comings and goings, the All Blacks have suffered just one last-gasp loss to world champions South Africa, while building incredible depth across their squad for the future.

All things considered, Foster seems just as frustrated that Wales have been written off so easily as their inability to put their strongest combination on the park.

"It is what it is," he shrugs. "There's always a lot of debate about international windows versus clubs, so nothing's really changed.

"It was a game that both countries wanted, it's been in the schedule for a long, long time. Everyone's had plenty of time to plan for it, but when teams are missing players through injury, regardless of which window it's in, they can't play.

"I think the numbers have been blown up a bit, to be honest."

Bearing in mind these two teams last met in the third/fourth playoff at the 2019 Rugby World Cup - won 40-17 by New Zealand - the clash comes at a crucial juncture of Foster's build-up for the next global tournament in two years.

Part of that preparation is adjusting to northern referees and rule interpretations. Frenchman Mathieu Reynal will take the whistle for this fixture, but the All Blacks have already encountered the vagaries of northern officials, under Englishmen Luke Pearce and Matthew Carley during the Rugby Championship.

"We certainly noticed a shift, when we had Luke and Matthew come down and do the last two games," says Foster. "We were delighted they came down and I thanked them personally for their commitment to travel down south.

"I think it's vital that we have as many games as we can with referees from both hemispheres, just to make sure that we understand where the game is going.

"Certainly, every time we come north at this time of year, World Rugby puts emphasis on certain parts of the game. Sometimes, they start out over-emphasizing things and then balance themselves out as the campaign goes, so we're very mindful of that in this first game."

Join us at 5:15am Sunday for live updates of the All Blacks v Wales test