Rugby Union: Wales at full strength for French test

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The Independent Online
WALES will go into Sunday's desperately difficult Five Nations finale against the Grand Slam-chasing French in buoyant mood, thanks to a largely error-free week of preparation on the practice pitch. The news should cause some alarm among the 50,000 red-scarved boyos currently planning their latest mass migration to Wembley, for the last time the Welsh congratulated themselves on a perfectly executed training programme, they promptly conceded 60 points to England.

All the same, Kevin Bowring was positively upbeat as his side completed their final full-on session at Sophia Gardens yesterday. "We're perfectly aware that we'll need to go up at least two levels to hold the French, but we've regained some confidence after coming from behind to beat both Scotland and Ireland and I think we're ready to reproduce some of the handling rugby we achieved before Christmas," the coach said.

Had yesterday's prolonged bout of physiotherapy failed to achieve the desired effect, the Welsh would have struggled to field a back division capable of handling the Severn Bridge toll system, let alone a high-class French outfit within touching distance of that rarest of achievements: the back-to-back Slam. As it turned out, though, three influential performers - Neil Jenkins, Kevin Morgan and the captain, Rob Howley - all declared themselves ready, willing and able.

So too did David Young, the 1989 Lions prop whose success in drawing the sting of the brilliant Christian Califano will be fundamental to Welsh survival chances this weekend. It is also 99 per cent certain that Allan Bateman, the finest all-round centre in Europe, will turn out, although he again missed training because of a family illness.

Howley, who turned an ankle during a club game last weekend but played a full part in yesterday's bump and grind, was making no bold predictions, although he drew sustenance from Ireland's extraordinarily passionate challenge in Paris almost four weeks ago. "They disrupted the French at the set-piece, got amongst them in the loose and generally messed them about," he said. "But we have to take the French approach into account, because they seemed to think they had only to turn up to win the game.

"It's all about their attitude on the day and if they're tuned in, they have enough flair to beat anyone in the world. We have to assume that they will be right mentally and therefore concentrate our efforts on denying them the forward platform they require to release players of the quality of Carbonneau, Castaignede and Lamaison. It's the ultimate challenge for our pack, especially our tight five, but at the same time, I'm sure it's a challenge they're dying to meet."

Bowring has worked overtime on the mysterious arts of scrummaging this week, along with improving his team's one-on-one defence. "We've taken the scrummage apart and rebuilt it piece by piece over the last two years and I think we're making tangible progress in that department," he said. "As for our defensive drills, we've invested in the rugby league experience of Clive Griffiths once again. He brings discipline and attitude to what we do and I think you'll see some offensive tackling from us on Sunday."

Meanwhile, the French continued their unnervingly quiet build-up across the Channel yesterday, showing their heads above the parapet only to confirm that they would be unchanged from the Ireland game.