Rugby Union: Classy Welsh driving on to biggest test

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The Independent Online
I CAN'T speak French but I can understand French body language, and long before they were overwhelmed by the Welsh rampage in the second half France had the haunted look of a side who sensed they were on their way to a disastrous defeat.

And it is no less than a disaster. France had to win this game in order to start patching up the damage done to their morale this year. I must be honest and say that I feared they would find themselves at the expense of Wales in this game. I have great respect for the classy traditions of French rugby; even when they are at their worst, I suspect they are only a touch away from reviving the form of past glories. Even now, I feel we could see their lightning strike again in the World Cup. But in order to do that they will need a huge improvement on this display.

In contrast, Wales never ever conveyed a negative message. Even when things were going wrong early in the game you could feel that they knew it would eventually come right. It is a great advantage to have such strong inner confidence.

We have to be fair and say the game was very scrappy, at times resembling a pre-season friendly with violent interludes. But these weeks before the big event are invariably nervy, and you could overlook the handling errors and the odd loss of discipline because of the two main strengths that came shining through this Welsh performance.

The first was the scrum, which is truly awesome, and the second was the defence, which was rock-solid and soaked up most of what the French could create in attack. The manner in which this Welsh team have come on in this run of eight unbeaten games is remarkable.

Another aspect of their play that impresses me is the way that the team think, both collectively and individually. With and without the ball they are communicating with each other and making the right decisions. This was more visible in the second half than in the first, which struggled to offer any consistent action.

But at least Welsh pressure kept forcing the French into conceding penalties, and the world should be well aware by now how perilous that can be. The French weakness in giving away vital penalties is something I've never been able to understand. Sometimes I feel they don't know the rules around the rucks and mauls. They look so astounded when they are penalised. How else do you explain their willingness to keep loading Neil Jenkins' right boot?

I reckon Jenkins ought be wrapped in cotton wool and put under armed guard in a bank vault. He is such a valuable national asset that I can't bear to think of going into the World Cup without him.

This is not to say that Wales are a one-man team. They are far from that. But the sight of that ball going over like clockwork adds so much gloss to the quality that Graham Henry has welded together.

Jenks was joined in hero status yesterday by Chris Wyatt, who made an enormous contribution, as well as Brett Sinkinson and Colin Charvis.

It was also noticeable how much the physical presence of the Welsh team has grown. No one in the world is going to bully them, from one to 15. Additionally, they quite obviously have a load of plans and moves up their sleeves.

The one that brought their try in the 74th minute was something I'd seen them practising. The prop Peter Rogers acts as the scrum-half and whips it to Rob Howley in the outside-half position.

The French suddenly found themselves having to drift two men wide to cover the movement along the Welsh line. But the ball was moved so quickly out to Dafydd James, helped by a brilliant pass from Shane Howarth, that the French just couldn't cope.

All the doubts that came flooding back when Wales had trouble overcoming the Canadians last weekend are now gone. The Welsh have proved that the impetus of form that has produced this brilliant run of successes is still driving them on to the biggest test of all.

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