Rugby Union: Wales confident of upset

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The Independent Online
ALAN DAVIES, the Wales coach, has enjoyed mini-revivals before and today against France he will discover whether he is genuinely on to a good thing or a two-match wonder. Whichever way you look at it, this is the watershed encounter of the Five Nations' Championship.

As an analogy Wales have reached half-time and, with the wind and rain in their favour, have established an advantage. The second half will reveal what they are truly made of. A convincing victory over Scotland and the rub of the green against Ireland has unexpectedly, following the defeat against Canada, put them on course not only for a Triple Crown but their first grand slam since 1978.

Now they have to preach to the unconverted. The Arms Park choir is primed but so are France. If this is a crucial test of Welsh steel, it is equally so for French mettle. If this match was being played in Paris, where, it seems, only England are capable of upsetting the French, Wales would expect to come away empty-handed. Home advantage is massive.

While Ireland were predictably limited in defeat at the Parc des Princes (the ball hardly ever left Eric Elwood's hands and the back row was an ill-conceived unit), Wales promise to deliver a great deal more. 'We have a better chance than ever to upset the French,' Robert Norster, their manager, said, 'because we are developing a pattern which we feel will allow us to peform well even against the best.'

It is possible that France are the best. If the revolutions and counter-revolutions that have bedevilled the national team have finally been quelled, then look out. Pierre Berbizier, the coach, seems to have found a settled team and, just as importantly, does not have to spend half his time protecting his back from the knife-throwers.

It is also possible - although judging by the punishment his pack meted out to the Irish the jury is still out - that Olivier Roumat has the qualities of leadership to ensure France realise their potential. Two years ago they said he had an 'attitude problem'. That was when he was sent off in a festival match between New Zealand and a World XV for kicking (somebody's head as opposed to the ball).

The International Rugby Board imposed a four-week suspension which was increased to six months by the French Federation. They say it reformed him but if anything his interest is more passionate. 'For me it is a passion for sporting excellence, a desire to succeed, to accomplish certain exploits. My passion is for this team to be recognised. We have had a number of successes but I want it to become a great record. It's not just a matter of winning a few games, of being able to look back and say I played for France. What I want is for this team to achieve something greater, to go down in the history of the game. So we can look back and say we were part of a great team.'

Wales have not beaten France for 12 years and the disruption to the threequarter line and the change in captaincy from Ieuan Evans to Gareth Llewellyn is doubly unfortunate. It tilts the balance towards France. Llewellyn, on whose shoulders the Welsh line-out largely rests, said yesterday that he has the forwards to neutralise the French pack. 'So far we have played within ourselves,' he said. Today they will have to play out of their skins.

Last year Wales lost 26-10 in Paris, Nigel Walker scoring a try. 'We'll be starting from that exact moment,' said Rupert Moon, who pointed out that Wales have scored 28 tries in their last seven internationals. 'France don't like it when they come up against a team that believes it can beat them.'

Neither side has yet conceded a try and both talk of playing an expansive game. For expansive read expensive. The key figures are apparently pre-ordained: Neil Jenkins, who has put his bag of nerves into an imaginary black box and is kicking better than ever, and Thierry Lacroix who, notwithstanding his laissez-faire approach, scored 20 points against Ireland. Then, of course, there's Lindsay McLachlan, the New Zealander who refereed the Scotland-England match at Murrayfield. To a large degree he will decide who gets what. An appeaser he is not.