sport

North ready for crucial week

George North accepts Wales face a huge game against New Zealand after an abysmal start to an autumn Test campaign.

Last year's World Cup semi-finalists are staring at a sixth successive defeat - their worst results sequence since the 2002-03 season - when New Zealand roll into Cardiff next Saturday.

Australia follow the All Blacks seven days later, and after Wales' dreadful displays against Argentina and Samoa it is difficult to imagine them threatening either opponent.

The current sense of gloom could be partially lifted by head coach Warren Gatland's imminent return to tracksuit duty from preparatory 2013 British and Irish Lions business, but Wales are in all kinds of strife.

On top of an alarming form slump, the reigning Six Nations champions also have a damaging injury list to contend with.

Already minus the services of key forwards Adam Jones, Dan Lydiate and Alun-Wyn Jones, hooker Richard Hibbard and fly-half Dan Biggar suffered shoulder problems that prompted early exits against Samoa last night.

Lock Teofilo Paulo could be cited for the gruesome challenge that ended Biggar's evening, but Wales' collective pain is now so severe that it almost defies description.

"We have got a big week ahead of us," Wales wing North said, following the 26-19 Samoa loss.

"It has been a bit of a poor start for us, but hopefully we can conjure up something against the All Blacks.

"They are the hardest team in the world to try to get a win against, but we are really focusing on it."

Given that Wales have failed to topple New Zealand in 24 attempts stretching back almost 60 years, it is difficult not to fear the worst for a team crippled by its lack of confidence.

"We suffered in terms of discipline, our basic skills under pressure. We lost that battle," North added.

"Leading into the game, we trained well and everything felt pretty smooth, but our basic skills let us down, and without them you can't put a platform down.

"You can't play the brand of rugby we want to play if you haven't got quick ball, and that starts from the basics. I think there were a few decisions where we should have played, and some other decisions when we should have kicked more.

"We tried to play too much out of our own half, when we should have put them under pressure with the high ball.

"It is a blow to us, but come Monday morning we will look at ourselves and work hard.

"It is Test rugby. You have your highs and lows. We had highs with the World Cup and the Six Nations last season, and we are in a tough autumn series now."

Interim head coach Rob Howley will now hand control back to Gatland after registering one win in six games. He reclaims the hot-seat for Wales' Six Nations title defence, which starts on February 2.

Howley said: "International rugby is about discipline, and when we created opportunities in the game, although we did not have many, we were disappointed in terms of our top-three inches at times.

"We were out-performed by a Samoa side whose ability to keep the ball better than us was the most disappointing aspect of the performance.

"We did not have control of possession or in terms of the contact area, and that (performance) is obviously not international standard.

"Over the last 12 months or so we have been to the World Cup semi-finals and won a (Six Nations) Grand Slam. We have had the highs, and now we are going through a low.

"We have to bounce back, and rugby gives you an opportunity.

"This group of players have been outstanding in training, but when we cross that white line our skills are not up to scratch of international rugby at this moment in time, but we will keep working hard and keep working smart and we will stick together.

"We have two good games against New Zealand and Australia to come, and it is something to look forward to."

The statistics, though, point to more pain for Wales.

Since Bleddyn Williams captained Wales to a 13-8 success against New Zealand in 1953, the average scoreline across 24 subsequent defeats is 34-10, while Australia have seen off Wales seven times in a row.