Planet Rugby



Preview: Wales v France

16th March 2012 07:14


Wales v France - William Servat

End of an era: William Servat

Wales will look to confirm their status as the northern hemisphere's leading nation by adding the final piece to the Grand Slam puzzle against France in Cardiff on Saturday.

Forget what those silly rankings say, this year's Six Nations Championship has confirmed what we were all led to believe during the World Cup: Wales are currently Europe's best side, and if they can keep all fifteen men on the park on Saturday (unlike in Auckland last October) they have every reason to believe they can complete their third Slam in eight years.

Wales have played some very exciting rugby this year and - assuming Ireland aren't thrashed at Twickenham - they will, deservedly, be crowned Six Nations champions, win or lose on Saturday.

It's so refreshing to see positive, open rugby from one of the Home Nations being rewarded and Warren Gatland has at his disposal a settled group that should continue to entertain for some years yet.

Mention for the World Cup and Sam's red card - check; Mention for the Grand Slam - check; Mention for Gatland and exciting rugby - check, check.

Right, now that the pleasantries have been dealt with, prepare yourself as I'm about to launch into a massive rant about France.

Lionel Beauxis at ten? Again? Really? After what happened last week? This must be some kind of sick joke....

I've yet to meet a single person who thinks Beauxis deserves another chance after last week's catastrophe (the French coaching staff excluded, of course). He was supposed to ensure that France dominated territorially and land a bunch of three pointers. He did neither. And he certainly didn't create much with ball in hand. Yet, Philippe Saint-André insists it's only fair that he gets another shot "away from home since François Trinh-Duc was allowed to start the first three games."

PSA is adamant that having two completely different fly-halves gives his team options - and he does make a fair point - but where does it leave them in terms of their preferred game plan? The retention of Beauxis and the return of Dimitri Yachvili means France will line-up their fourth half-back pairing in five games. Sound familiar?

Trinh-Duc's kicking game has come under heavy criticism for some time now but the harsh reality is that there simply isn't a pivot in France that ticks all the boxes. With Morgan Parra and Yachvili both reliable goal-kickers, Trinh-Duc's ability to take the ball to, and often over, the gain line must surely be a trump card.

Now that I've vented my spleen and can think clearly, there might be a method behind PSA's madness, but not one he is willing to admit openly. Heavy showers have been forecast for Saturday. The visitors insist the roof remain open. France love to maul, and they're damn good at it. Beauxis has massive boot. Wait...what's this? William Servat is back? Did anyone say rolling maul from attacking line-out?

If there is one thing we've learnt this year it's that France are simply not the same team without Servat. The best hooker in Europe has been left on the bench the whole tournament in the name of building for the future but has been given a starting berth this week since it's his last international game (note that Lionel Nallet was not accorded the same privilege).

Indeed the justification for the wholesale changes this weekend has been the rebuilding process. But it's impossible to imagine that Florian Fritz and 31-year-old Aurélien Rougerie will form a long-term centre partnership so why bother forcing Wesley Fofana - France's most dangerous player this year - to play out of position on the wing? The explanation for the Rougerie-Fritz combo at the expensive of Maxime Mermoz (who has been sent home having hardly played) is to bulk up the midfield to match Wales' heavyweight runners. Mixing and matching with selections and game plans, playing youngsters out of we really need to go down this road, again?

Perhaps I'm being too harsh. Since France have nothing to lose, perhaps this is the time to try something new. I just can't stave off the feeling it's all a bit of a last-minute mishmash rather than the coherent continuation of what has been done so far.

Back to Wales, who, in stark contrast have named an unchanged backline for a fifth successive Test match. Those same backs have scored all nine of the side's tries this term. The consistency in selection is underlined by the fact that 10 of the run-on XV have started every Six Nations game this season.

So what we've got here is one settled side, on the verge of an historic occasion, hosting a travelling group trying to find their feet as a few new ingredients are thrown into the mix. We'll only know if those ingredients are the right ones late on Saturday, but if they are, the danger for Wales is to get ahead of themselves.

They hosts have repeated at nauseam that they are not counting their chickens just yet but with all the hype surrounding the team it would only be human nature to imagine the potential glory on the horizon.

It's a fatal error that we've seen time and again. Some would suggest the All Blacks came very close to being the victims of exactly the same and only got out of jail against the French last year thanks to a certain Craig Joubert, who happens to be in the middle this week (much to Imanol Harinordoquy's displeasure if Thursday's press conference is anything to go by).

Wales will do well to remember the 29-12 victory over France in 2008 that gave them their last Grand Slam since it was their only win over France in their last eight clashes. And Cardiff seems to be a happy hunting ground for les Bleus, who have won on seven of their last eight visits to the Millennium Stadium since the 1999 World Cup Final defeat to Australia there.

Players love to tell you that the past is the past, but people will be people and a lot of emotional baggage will be carried out onto the park by both sides on Saturday. It promises to be fascinating.

Players to watch:

For France: Certain sectors of the French press were up in arms when Florain Fritz was not included in France's initial Six Nations squad. Monsieur Fritz has been in and out of the French setup over the years after not always seeing eye to eye with coaches and being the victim of his disciplinary record (he's seen yellow four times already this season.) He's been in storming form for Toulouse - just ask the three Castres defenders he flattened en-route to the tryline last week - and is just the man for the job as PSA looks to add some bulk to his midfield. Also keep an eye on young Clermont wing/full-back Jean-Marcellin Buttin, who could earn his first cap off the bench at the tender age of 20. Buttin has been the find of the Top 14 season and will be keen to emulate club team-mate Wesley Fofana in making a splash on debut.

For Wales: The unsung hero of Wales' campaign, Dan Lydiate has been a tackling machine. His work rate has led Gatland to call him "the glue that holds the side together" and even compare him to former England great Richard Hill. Up against two of the best in the business - Julien Bonnaire and Thierry Dusautoir - Lydiate will have the chance to show just how good he is. The French consider Jamie Roberts dangerous enough to change their line-up in order to put a roadblock in front in him. Don't expect the Welshman to change much in reply though - Roberts will run straight and hard and good luck to anyone in his way.

Head-to-head: There are a number a juicy battles on offer. Roberts v Fritz; Phillips v Yachvili; Warburton v Dusautoir; and one tussle up front should be particularly intriguing. After being nothing more than a waterboy for the first four games, David Attoub has been given a chance in the starting XV, six years after his last Test cap. Gethin Jenkins had been looking forward to taking on Nicolas Mas - who is being rested after making a massive contribution for club and country over the last few months - but Attoub is no slouch and, if nothing else, will bring some very fresh legs. Jenkins will be the one to decide whether he is good enough for Test rugby however.

Previous results:

2011: France won 9-8 at Eden Park
2011: France won 28-9 at Stade de France
2010: France won 26-20 at Millennium Stadium
2009: France won 21-16 at Stade de France
2008: Wales won 29-12 at Millennium Stadium
2007: France won 34-7 at Millennium Stadium
2007: France won 32-21 at Stade de France
2006: France won 21-16 at Millennium Stadium
2005: Wales won 24-18 at Stade de France
2004: France won 29-22 at Millennium Stadium
2003: France won 33-5 at Stade de France
2002: France won 37-33 at Millennium Stadium
2001: Wales won 35-43 at Stade de France
2000: France won 36-3 at Millennium Stadium

Prediction: Wales have lost just one of their last five home games: 18-24 to Australia in December. Stern tests against England and Ireland have shown they have the mental toughness to get out of tight situations so they should have what it takes to go all the way on Saturday. Wales by six points

Rugby Union betting odds

The teams:

Wales: 15 Leigh Halfpenny, 14 Alex Cuthbert, 13 Jonathan Davies, 12 Jamie Roberts, 11 George North, 10 Rhys Priestland, 9 Mike Phillips, 8 Toby Faletau, 7 Sam Warburton (c), 6 Dan Lydiate, 5 Ian Evans, 4 Alun Wyn Jones, 3 Adam Jones, 2 Matthew Rees, 1 Gethin Jenkins.
Replacements: 16 Ken Owens, 17 Paul James, 18 Luke Charteris, 19 Ryan Jones, 20 Lloyd Williams, 21 James Hook, 22 Scott Williams

France: 15 Clement Poitrenaud, 14 Wesley Fofana, 13 Aurélien Rougerie, 12 Florian Fritz, 11 Alexis Palisson, 10 Lionel Beauxis, 9 Dimitri Yachvili, 8 Imanol Harinordoquy, 7 Julien Bonnaire, 6 Thierry Dusautoir (c), 5 Yohann Maestri, 4 Pascal Pape, 3 David Attoub, 2 William Servat, 1 Jean-Baptiste Poux.
Replacements: 16 Dimitri Szarzewski, 17 Vincent Debaty, 18 Julien Pierre, 19 Louis Picamoles, 20 Morgan Parra, 21 François Trinh-Duc, 22 Jean-Marcellin Buttin

Date: Saturday, March 17
Venue: Millennium Stadium, Cardiff
Weather: 11°C, chances of heavy showers. The roof will be open!
Referee: Craig Joubert (South Africa)
Assistant referees: Wayne Barnes (England), Stuart Terheege (England)
Television match official: Iain Ramage (Scotland)

By Ross Hastie

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