Rugby union / Five Nations' Focus: French free to exploit new Welsh

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The Independent Online
SO WALES have a chance to compensate England for beating them in Cardiff. All they have to do is overturn France in Paris, where they have not defeated the home side since 1975 and where the French have never lost a March international at the Parc des Princes. Oh, dear. Maybe the English are on their own in Dublin after all.

How wretched the Welsh have been since they ended England's hopes of a third consecutive Grand Slam. After losses away to Scotland and at home to Ireland, the last thing Alan Davies's side need are to confront a mountain of discouraging statistics and a French team on the verge of their first Five Nations' Championship title since 1989. Costa Rica in Cardiff would probably be Wales's favoured fixture just now.

The Welsh have made six changes from the side who lost to Ireland, so here at least is one historical precedent to encourage them. Eighteen years ago they tried a similarly radical restructuring ahead of a visit to Paris and were rewarded with an unexpected victory, though it is necessary in the interests of balance to recall that the 1975 team contained such luminaries as Gareth Edwards, the Williamses, JPR and JJ, and Mervyn Davies and Bobby Windsor.

Current alterations are much less likely to yield an upset. Though Rupert Moon is regarded as a more combative scrum-half than the discarded Robert Jones, the Parc des Princes is hardly the ideal venue for him to be blooded (unless in the highly negative sense). The same applies to Andrew Lamerton, Wales's youngest hooker since 1947 and a man who admits to occasionally sleepwalking and screaming at night, though not, he insists, through fear of the French.

Wales's new caps lack plenty in terms of experience but nothing in pre-match fervour. Moon, whose birthplace is Walsall, says, 'I regard myself as Welsh because this is where I was born again', but there will be many red-shirted supporters today who will hope he can be born again a second time in Paris - as Gareth Edwards. On their last two trips here, Wales have lost 36-3 and 36-12.

France have a different problem. They could finish up champions and yet be almost equally besieged by domestic criticism. According to the purists here, Pierre Berbizier, the French coach, has sacrificed both the long-term development of the team and the country's tradition of expansive rugby to the political need for immediate success, with the result that France have merely slogged their way to an eight-point lead over England in the for-and-against column.

Gary Whetton, the former All Black captain, added credence to this theory by saying, 'home or away, France are at least 15 to 20 points behind the Australians and the New Zealanders', a view that will be tirelessly examined should France find themselves, mathematicaly at least, top of the European rugby pile.

While Berbizier talks of 'getting the balance right' between exuberance and the chessboard method, Laurent Cabannes, his formidable flanker, has a more frank appraisal of France's mission. 'Our first objective is to win,' Cabannes said, 'and pleasing the crowd has to be of secondary importance.' Berbizier, counselling caution, warned that Wales 'are an unknown quantity and can go from the sublime to the ridiculous'.

Late team news yesterday was that Wayne Procter has been called up as cover for the Wales full-back, Tony Clement, who has been suffering from a 48-hour bug. Nothing, though, could puncture Moon's enthusiasm for battle. 'We've got to meet them head on and try to knock them out of their stride,' he said. A re-writing of history will also be required.

----------------------------------------------------------------- FRANCE V WALES (At Parc des Princes) ----------------------------------------------------------------- J-B Lafond . . . . .Begles 15 A Clement . . . .Swansea P Saint-Andre . . . Montferrand 14 I Evans . . . . .Llanelli, capt P Sella . . . . . . Agen 13 N Davies . . . . Llannelli T Lacroix . . . . . Dax 12 S Gibbs . . . . .Swansea P Hontas . . . . . .Biarritz 11 N Walker . . . . Cardiff F Mesnel . . . . . .Racing Club 10 N Jenkins . . . .Ponypridd A Hueber . . . . . .Toulon 9 R Moon. . . . . .Llanelli L Armary . . . . . .Lourdes 1 R Evans . . . . .Llanelli J-F Tordo . . . . . Nice, capt 2 A Lamerton . . . Llanelli L Seigne . . . . . .Merignac 3 H Williams-Jones South Wales Police A Benazzi . . . . . Agen 4 P Davies . . . . Llanelli O Roumat . . . . . .Dax 5 G O Llewellyn . .Neath P Benetton . . . . .Agen 6 M Perego . . . . Llanelli M Cecillon . . . . .Bourgoin 8 E Lewis . . . . .Llanelli L Cabannes. . . . . Racing Club 7 R Webster . . . .Swansea Replacements: 16 S Ougier (Toulouse), 17 P Montlaur (Agen), 18 G Accoceberry (Tyrosse), 19 E Melville (Toulon), 20 S Graou (Auch), 21 F Landreau (Grenoble). Replacements: 16 R Jones (Swansea), 17 A Davies (Cardiff), 18 M Rayer (Cardiff), 19 N Meek (Pontypool), 20 J Davies (Neath), 21 P Arnold (Swansea). Referee: O Doyle (Ireland). Kick-off 2.0. -----------------------------------------------------------------