As far as the Welsh are concerned, it is a full Test with all the trimmings; caps will definitely be awarded by the home union and, as a consequence, Barrie Williams of Neath can rest peacefully in his bed until his dying day. The 23-year-old hooker was called up yesterday morning after Jonathan Humphreys, the skipper, withdrew with a damaged hamstring. Nigel Davies, the Llanelli centre, takes over the captaincy.
Williams, who made a record 10 appearances for Wales Youth and has sneaked ahead of Swansea's Garin Jenkins in the front-row pecking order, will be the second new cap in a Welsh pack that looks worryingly lightweight in comparison to an opposing unit fairly packed with muscle, not to mention class and experience.
Mike Voyle is the other debutant - the Llanelli lock jumps at the front of the line-out, with Gareth Llewellyn shifting back to the middle - while the wing forwards Kingsley Jones, in for the injured Hemi Taylor, and Martyn Williams have just two caps between them, both laughably awarded for the half-baked match with the Barbarians in August.
Tonight's game will be a far more serious and instructive affair. The French, close to full strength, are armed with 11 of the side who beat Argentina 34-15 in Buenos Aires three months ago and look particularly powerful in the back row where Richard Castel, who scored two tries against Ireland in last season's Five Nations, returns alongside Philippe Benetton and the outstanding Abdel Benazzi. The fact that Benazzi is no longer being wasted in the second row is of no help whatsoever to Wales.
According to their captain, Philippe Saint-Andre, the visitors are treating the match with all due sincerity, despite the shenanigans over caps. "We are mindful that we have lost our last two matches in Cardiff, which is always a difficult venue for us," he said. "We have a tough series against South Africa coming up and we need victory to help build on the work we accomplished in Argentina during the summer."
But the fact remains that Wales need this game far more than the French. They caught a serious hiding in Australia in June, losing the two Tests by an aggregate score of 98-28, and if they go under again tonight their coach, Kevin Bowring, will be under heavy pressure to recall some of the old stagers who have returned to union from rugby league in recent weeks.
"Sometimes, you have to go into the kitchen even if you get burned," Bowring said on his return from Australia. Instead of issuing caps, the Welsh Rugby Union might consider handing their players a set of asbestos gloves.
WALES v FRANCE
at Cardiff Arms Park
W Proctor Llanelli 15 J-L Sadourny Colomiers
I Evans Llanelli 14 E N'Tamack Toulouse
L Davies Cardiff 13 R Dourthe Dax
N Davies Llanelli, capt 12 S Glas Bourgoin
G Thomas Bridgend 11 P Saint-Andre Montferrand, capt
N Jenkins Pontypridd 10 A Penaud Brive
R Howley Cardiff 9 P Carbonneau Brive
C Loader Swansea 1 C Califano Toulouse
B Williams Neath 2 M de Rougemont Toulon
J Davies Neath 3 F Tournaire Narbonne
M Voyle Llanelli 4 F Pelous Dax
G Llewellyn Harlequins 5 O Merle Montferrand
K Jones Ebbw Vale 6 R Castel Beziers
S Williams Neath 8 A Benazzi Agen
M Williams Pontypridd 7 P Benetton AgenReuse content