Six Nations: Wales braced for French test

Wales and France want to put things right tonight, and whoever does at the Millennium Stadium will have a huge bearing on the RBS Six Nations championship.

George North, left, shares a joke with Rhys Priestland as Mike Phillips, right, looks on. Picture: Getty
George North, left, shares a joke with Rhys Priestland as Mike Phillips, right, looks on. Picture: Getty
George North, left, shares a joke with Rhys Priestland as Mike Phillips, right, looks on. Picture: Getty

Welsh ambitions of three straight titles are on thin ice. That strut in their stride that coach Warren Gatland said they should show off before the tournament has been replaced by a limp. After the 26-3 thrashing from Ireland for their worst Six Nations result in eight years, they face the grim prospect of two consecutive defeats. That hasn’t happened since 2010, when France last won in Cardiff, which also happened to be on a Friday night.

“We need to react,” said George North, who after 37 destructive caps on the wing will start at centre to answer an SOS by Wales.

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Having beaten England and Italy in Paris, the French – written off in some quarters before the opening weekend – are on a remarkable course to the title.

But they are still ridding themselves of the bitter taste of 2013, their annus horribilis, when they were also last in the Six Nations. This year they are the leaders with Ireland with two wins from two matches, but Les Bleus have yet to play well for 40 minutes, let alone 80. They have fired only in spurts. “The squad has done enormously well to pick up two wins. We have to make the most of it,” said No 8 Louis Picamoles, the tournament’s leading forward in metres made.

France’s rising confidence has been crucially helped by coach Philippe Saint-Andre’s limited tinkering. He’s made four changes through three rounds. At the same point in 2013, he had made ten. Gatland kept his changes for this match to four, with only one in the pack where Wales were dominated in Dublin. The lack of game-time beforehand by the likes of props Adam Jones and Gethin Jenkins, and captain Sam Warburton was exposed by the Irish, prompting Warburton and Jenkins to be released to play for their clubs last weekend.

Rhys Webb played for Ospreys, and the display was good enough for him to be given his first Test start in place of Mike Phillips, the 82-cap scrum-half who has paid for his slow service and inattention.

The Welsh regard the drubbing from Ireland as a one-off, one bad day at the office, even though they also had a bad half-day against Italy. Gatland was so disturbed by the effort that he’s warned his team that test careers are on the line.

“Hopefully, they will respond, because it is important for us in terms of not just this competition,” Gatland said. “For a lot of those players they’ve got to start thinking about the next 12 months and the World Cup, and if they don’t play well on Friday night it could be the last time they will play for Wales. It’s an opportunity to get back on the horse.”

But Ireland gave France a blueprint to success. Dominate the lineouts and the breakdowns. Starve the Wales backline.

Ireland scored tries from lineout mauls, and Wales lock Alun-Wyn Jones acknowledged they’re difficult to defend. “Once the ball is at the back of the maul, you can’t get to it, pull it down, tackle it, sack it, once it’s moving,” Jones said. “That is why it is such a weapon. It’s most definitely a case of stopping it at source. We didn’t do that.

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“Any team that has coded us, taken a good look at us, is going to point to it as an opportunity. It’s in the armoury of almost every team in the French league, and that is not going to change on Friday night.”

Wales just need to be themselves, rediscover the strut, North said. “It’s important to remember that we proved last year that defeat doesn’t mean it’s all lost,” he said. “We have a lot to play for.”

Senior statesman Jenkins has also backed the reigning champions to recover from their Dublin debacle and retrieve the campaign. Triple Grand Slam-winner Jenkins will pack down for his 103rd cap tonight – one short of equalling Stephen Jones’ Wales record – and he knows what is required.

“There are a lot of words being said, but we just need to get out there and perform now. There are a lot of boys upset with the way we performed [against Ireland], and we know we can do better,” Cardiff Blues prop Jenkins said.

“I don’t think this team is used to losing too many games, especially in the Six Nations the last few years,” Jenkins continued. “There is still a lot of confidence in the players we’ve got, it is just a case of getting back out on that field and proving ourselves.

“We are at home, there will be a big atmosphere, and we need to show what we are about.”



15 L Halfpenny

14 A Cuthbert

13 G North

12 J Roberts

11 L Williams

10 R Priestland

9 R Webb

1 G Jenkins

2 R Hibbard

3 A Jones

4 L Charteris

5 A-W Jones

6 D Lydiate

7 S Warburton (C)

8 T Faletau


16 K Owens

17 P James

18 R Jones

19 J Ball

20 J Tipuric

21 M Phillips

22 D Biggar

23 J Hook


15 B Dulin

14 Y Huget

13 M Bastareaud

12 W Fofana

11 H Bonneval

10 J Plisson

9 J-M Doussain

1 T Domingo

2 D Szarzewski

3 N Mas

4 P Pape (C)

5 Y Maestri

6 Y Nyanga

7 W Lauret

8 L Picamoles


16 B Mach

17 Y Forestier

18 V Debaty

19 S Vahaamahina

20 D Chouly

21 M Machenaud

22 R Tales

23 G Fickou