Rugby Union: French mountain awaits the Welsh

Five Nations' Championship: Wales choose six leaders to upset Tricolores at Stade de France
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TO SAY that Wales were edgy in the run-in to today's Five Nations showdown with France in Paris is an understatement judging by yesterday's activities at the Stade de France.

Prior to their team's work-out at the ground, Welsh officials conducted a search of the stadium to ensure that there were no French spies lurking in the shadows. It is to be hoped that the players themselves will be as security conscious when they take the field against the Championship favourites this afternoon.

With two defeats, against Scotland and Ireland, already behind them, the Dragons are hotly tipped to be left with the wooden spoon and only the third whitewash in their Championship history.

France, on the other hand, are well on course for their third successive Grand Slam, an unprecedented feat but one that is not beyond them. Their manager, Jo Maso, is more bullish: "I sincerely believe that we have the players to help us become World Champions."

And he singled out captain Raphael Ibanez for special mention. "He has rediscovered himself," enthused Maso. "He has grown in stature and taken on another dimension. He has become the perfect interface between players and management."

The Dragons are clearly in need of a whole lot more puff than they have revealed to date and a touch of magic would probably not go amiss. But their coach, Graham Henry, appears undaunted. He recognises the task today is enormous. And during the build-up in this last week he admitted: "In the 25 or so years of coaching this is the greatest challenge I have ever had as a rugby coach."

But there was a glimmer of optimism when he added: "There are times when I have thought this is Everest but, then, Sir Edmund Hillary - a New Zealander - conquered that, so who knows?"

Henry is of course a New Zealander himself. He is on a contract with the Welsh Rugby Union reputed to be worth pounds 1.5 million over five years, a sum that will begin to look like a mountainous pile of cash if Wales finish the Five Nations with nothing.

They go into the game with just four of the side - captain Robert Howley, Neil Jenkins, Garin Jenkins and Colin Charvis - that was crushed by France and tipped over the side of the mountain last year when they lost by a record 51-0 to the Tricolores.

It has been said that Wales lacked leadership against Ireland. They cannot be accused of that in this match. The four survivors from last year's French humiliation are included among half-a-dozen chiefs in the Wales team, as the management has tried to delegate responsibility on the field.

Howley's role is overall captain, and he said: "I don't think there should be 15 captains out there."

No, quite. But six clearly is an acceptable number. It must be, because for this match Howley has five lieutenants; hooker Garin Jenkins is responsible for the scrummage, No 8 Scott Quinnell has charge of the line-out calls, flanker Colin Charvis is responsible for defensive organisation, Neil Jenkins is kicking captain and Scott Gibbs has been put in charge of the midfield organisation. Henry explained: "I think it's important that senior players take responsibility for certain areas of the game. It brings them on as players." So France are going to be treated to six of the best.

As for what is left of the team, Wales supporters just have to hope that the six do not all speak at the same time. The multiple appointments should mean that there will be better discipline in the ranks. The Ireland defeat was laid squarely at the feet of the few who lost their heads at critical moments. They have been duly censured for their irresponsible behaviour and manager David Pickering said yesterday: "We hope intelligence will take the place of bashing and brawling."

Anyway, Henry is able to draw on one positive thought: "There was a 20 minute passage of play against the Irish when we did what we had been practising. We have to build on that and turn those 20 minutes into 40, then 60 and finally 80 minutes."

That will have to start today. They are not even at base camp. The summit awaits, but it is shrouded in cloud. This looks like being the start of a tough climb for Wales.


P W D L F A Pts

Scotland 2 1 0 1 54 44 2

Ireland 2 1 0 1 38 33 2

England 1 1 0 0 24 21 2

France 1 1 0 0 10 9 2

Wales 2 0 0 2 43 62 0

RESULTS: 6 Feb: Ireland 9 France 10; Scotland 33 Wales 20. 20 Feb England 24 Scotland 21; Wales 23 Ireland 29.

FIXTURES: 6 March: France v Wales (at Stade de France); Ireland v England (at Lansdowne Road). 20 March: England v France (at Twickenham); Scotland v Ireland (at Murrayfield). 10 April: France v Scotland (at Stade de France). 11 April: Wales v England (at Wembley).


at Stade de France

E Ntamack (Toulouse) 15 S Howarth (Sale)

P Bernat-Salles (Biarritz) 14 M Robinson (Swansea)

R Dourthe (Stade Francais) 13 M Taylor (Swansea)

F Comba (Stade Francais) 12 S Gibbs (Swansea)

T Lombard (Stade Francais) 11 D James (Pontypridd)

T Castaignede (Castres) 10 N Jenkins (Pontypridd)

P Carbonneau (Brive) 9 R Howley (Cardiff, capt)

C Califano (Toulouse) 1 P Rogers (London Irish)

R Ibanez (Perpignan, capt) 2 G Jenkins (Swansea)

F Tournaire (Toulouse) 3 B Evans (Swansea)

O Brouzet (Begles-Bordeux) 4 C Quinnell (Richmond)

F Pelous (Toulouse) 5 C Wyatt (Llanelli)

P Benetton (Agen) 6 C Charvis (Swansea)

M Raynaud (Narbonne) 7 B Sinkinson (Neath)

T Lievremont (Perpignan) 8 S Quinnell (Llanelli)

Referee: J Fleming (Scotland) Kick-off: 2.0 (BBC1)

Replacements: 16 K Morgan (Pontypridd); 17 G Thomas (Cardiff); 18 D Llewellyn (Ebbw Vale); 19 M Voyle (Llanelli); 20 J Davies (Llanelli); 21 A Lewis (Cardiff); 22 B Williams (Richmond).

Replacements: 16 C Laussucq (Stade Francais); 17 D Aucagne (Pau); 18 X Garbajosa (Toulouse); 19 R Castel (Beziers); 20 D Auradou; 21 S Marconnet (Both Stade Francais); 22 M Dal Maso (Colomiers).