SAM Warburton is ready to lead Wales’ final push for RBS Six Nations title and Grand Slam glory tomorrow, declaring: “It will be the biggest game of my career.”
The Wales captain has recovered from a knee injury that meant he missed last weekend’s Millennium Stadium victory over Italy. He replaces Ospreys flanker Justin Tipuric as the only change from that game, and Warburton is looking to make it a case of third time lucky against France this weekend.
Cardiff Blues star Warburton was sent off when the countries last met in a gripping World Cup semi-final at Auckland’s Eden Park five months ago. France triumphed 9-8, but they were outplayed by Wales for long periods of a game that saw them reduced to 14 men after just 18 minutes when Warburton was dismissed following a dangerous tackle on France wing Vincent Clerc. “I have started against France twice, and I haven’t made it past the 20-minute mark on either occasion,” he said. “The first time I got injured, and then there was the semi-final, so it would be nice to stay on for a bit longer than that this time and have a good outing against Thierry Dusautoir.”
Warburton has played just 120 minutes’ rugby in the Six Nations this season. He was forced off at half-time during the opening weekend victory over Ireland due to a thigh injury, then sat out Scotland’s Millennium Stadium visit before a knee problem suffered against England at Twickenham sidelined him for Italy.
But he added: “I am feeling great. I am really happy with the way [the knee] has responded. I ran on it on the morning of the Italy game – I’d had two weeks of nothing until that – so on Tuesday this week I could do pretty much everything at training. I had more treatment yesterday, and it feels great again today, so it’s back to normal. I am 100 per cent going to play.”
Warburton dismissed any notion of a personal hangover from the World Cup defeat, which remains the low point in an otherwise upwardly-mobile career. “There are much more important things to worry about this weekend,” he said. “Getting my knee right is what my attention has been on. I remember watching the Wales Grand Slams in 2005 and 2008, and as a kid that is what motivated me to play rugby, really, when you watched those games. It is something you want to take part in, so every time I trained as a teenager I wanted to end up playing in games like this one, which is why I feel so lucky and privileged to be here. It will be the biggest game of my career, and it can’t come soon enough.”
The 23-year-old’s return is critical to a Wales team seeking coach Warren Gatland’s second Six Nations title and Grand Slam of his four-year reign. Prop Gethin Jenkins sees leadership duties passed back to Warburton, while hooker Matthew Rees, who missed the World Cup because of a neck injury that required surgery, wins his 50th cap.
The Wales back division, one that has scored all nine of Wales’ Six Nations tries this term, is unchanged for a fifth successive Test match. Tipuric, meanwhile, misses out on the match-day 22, with Ryan Jones providing back-row cover and scrum-half Lloyd Williams returning among the replacements.
France coach Philippe Saint-Andre has made five changes and one positional switch for the match in Cardiff.
Prop Nicolas Mas, hooker Dimitri Szarzewski and scrum-half Julien Dupuy have been left out after Les Bleus’ 24-22 home defeat to England. Perpignan forward Mas is replaced by Stade Francais tighthead David Attoub, who is now playing again after serving a 70-week ban for eye-gouging Ireland flanker Stephen Ferris in a Heineken Cup clash between Stade and Ulster. Toulouse hooker William Servat is in for Szarzewski, while Saint-Andre’s other changes come behind the scrum.
Vincent Clerc is out injured, so Wesley Fofana, who has scored a try in all four of France’s Six Nations games this season, switches from centre to wing. Florian Fritz takes Fofana’s place alongside Aurelien Rougerie, with starts also handed to wing Alexis Palisson and scrum-half Dimitri Yachvili. Les Bleus have only lost once in six previous Six Nations Cardiff visits – a 29-12 defeat four years ago when Wales clinched the Grand Slam.
Wales: L Halfpenny (Cardiff Blues); A Cuthbert (Cardiff Blues), J Davies (Scarlets), J Roberts (Cardiff Blues), G North (Scarlets); R Priestland (Scarlets), M Phillips (Bayonne); G Jenkins (Cardiff Blues), M Rees (Scarlets), A Jones (Ospreys), A-W Jones (Ospreys), I Evans (Ospreys), D Lydiate (Newport Gwent Dragons), S Warburton (Cardiff Blues, capt), T Faletau (Newport Gwent Dragons). Subs: K Owens (Scarlets), P James (Ospreys), L Charteris (Newport Gwent Dragons), R Jones (Ospreys), L Williams (Cardiff Blues), J Hook (Perpignan), S Williams (Scarlets).
France: C Poitrenaud (Toulouse); W Fofana (Clermont Auvergne), A Rougerie (Clermont Auvergne), F Fritz (Toulouse), A Palisson (Toulon); L Beauxis (Stade Francais), D Yachvili (Biarritz); J-B Poux (Toulouse), W Servat (Toulouse), D Attoub (Stade Francais), P Pape (Stade Francais), Y Maestri (Toulouse), T Dusautoir (Toulouse, capt), J Bonnaire (Clermont Auvergne), I Harinordoquy (Biarritz). Subs: D Szarzewski (Stade Francais), V Debaty (Clermont Auvergne), J Pierre (Clermont Auvergne), L Picamoles (Toulouse), M Parra (Clermont), F Trinh-Duc (Montpellier), J-M Buttin (Clermont Auvergne).