By Owain Jones, Rugby World Editor
Riding on emotion
If ‘revenge’ for the controversial semi-final loss to France in October wasn’t enough motivation for the Wales squad, Mervyn Davies’ sad passing will ensure the atmosphere in the Millennium Stadium is brimming with emotion. Warren Gatland’s task will be to temper any unnecessary rushes of blood to the head. Wales will need to show maturity for the entire 80 minutes and can ill afford to lose another player to a yellow card, let alone red, after Sam Warburton’s well-documented solitary march to the sidelines in Auckland. In fact, the old adage about using the ‘top two inches’ has never been more important.
A top-level sports event is not the same without some form of controversy attached to it. This week’s palaver is the old ‘roof-on or roof-off’ chestnut. Showers are threatening to rain on Wales’ parade, so when Philippe Saint-Andre said he wanted the roof open, Warren Gatland was unimpressed arguing the game would be less of an attractive spectacle with water on the deck. In terms of omens, Wales will cast their eyes nervously back to1988 when the side lost the chance to win the Grand Slam thanks to heavy rain at Cardiff Arms Park, losing in a forward-dominated encounter 10-9. The class of 2012 look unlikely to suffer the same fate. The Lions front-row of Adam Jones, Matthew Rees and Gethin Jenkins should be grizzly and gnarled enough to withstand the attentions of veteran props Jean-Baptiste Poux and David Attoub along with the retiring William Servat, while the battle of the backrow promises to be titanic, with Imanol Harinodoquy, Julien Bonnaire and Thierry Dusautoir looking to hand a salutary lesson to the ‘three amigos’ of Dan Lydiate, Toby Faletau and Sam Warburton. Expect seismic collisions.
Clash of the titans
Much has been made of the size of Wales’ gargantuan backline, with some commentators pointing out that Wales are now showing more grunt than guile out wide. This is a little harsh on the likes of George North and Alex Cuthbert who have shown they are fine footballers, not just battering rams. Indeed, any side lacking Shane Williams and an on-form Gavin Henson would lose some subtlety and flair, but there’s no doubt the kids can play. As for the visitors, Philippe Saint-Andre has been forced to shift France’s outstanding back, Wesley Fofana, out onto the wing, due to Vincent Clerc’s injury, so he is banking on Florian Fritz and the statutesque Aurelien Rougerie to stand up to Jamie Roberts and Jonathan Davies in midfield. He will also be hoping Lionel Beauxis can display a creativity that has so far proved eluded him in his international career.
Despite the change in management, with the outgoing Marc Lievremont widely derided for his selection policy, the supposedly pragmatic Philippe Saint-Andre is still clearly searching for his magic formula. After casting Julien Dupuy aside after a shocker against England, he has parachuted the on-form Dimitri Yachvili back in a No. 9 and said thanks but no thanks to Lionel Nallet thus ending his 12-year international career. Who know’s whether Saint Andre’s tinkering will work? In fact it’s difficult not to roll out that well-worn cliché, ‘you never know which French team is going to turn up’ because it’s true, we simply do not know. What is unequivocal is that they do have the potential to deliver a Gallic masterclass and come away with a win. Amid the pre-match hype, that’s the fear Warren Gatland has to keep repeating to his players.
Previous games at the Millennium Stadium have been one-sided against the hosts, with France winning seven out of the last eight encounters, but I expect Wales to win, and win ‘relatively’ comfortably to set off a giant Grand Slam party and a fitting tribute to the incomparable Mervyn Davies. I’m going for 28-17.
WALES v FRANCE, MILLENNIUM STADIUM, SATURDAY 17 MARCH, KICK-OFF 2.30pm
Wales : L Halfpenny, A Cuthbert, J Davies, J Roberts, G North, R Priestland, M Phillips; G Jenkins, M Rees, Adam Jones, AW Jones, I Evans, D Lydiate, S Warburton (c), T Faletau.
Replacements: K Owens, P James, L Charteris, R Jones, L Williams, J Hook, S Williams.
France : C Poitrenaud, W Fofana, A Rougerie, F Fritz, A Palisson, L Beauxis, D Yachvili; JP Poux, W Servat, D Attoub, P Pape, Y Maestri, T Dusautoir (c), J Bonnaire, I Harinordoquy.
Replacements: D Szarzewski, V Debaty, J Pierre, L Picamoles, M Parra, F Trinh-Duc, JM Buttin.