Bad news for Wales as Yachvili is fit to start
Dimitri Yachvili, the Biarritz scrum-half whose tactical mastery has made him the single most influential player in the French squad at this World Cup, is taking a rest from training until tomorrow. Unfortunately for Wales, he has no intention of taking a rest from playing. The man who caused such problems for England in last weekend's quarter-final at Eden Park is still nursing the thigh he bruised during that game, but in naming an unchanged side for this weekend's last-four tie at the same venue, the head coach, Marc Lièvremont, insisted his principal playmaker would be fit to start.
It was news the Welsh would rather not have heard – especially as their own playmaker, the young outside-half Rhys Priestland, is struggling with shoulder trouble – but they probably expected the worst. "Yachvili looks to me like a man who totally understands the game of rugby," admitted Shaun Edwards, the Red Dragons' defence strategist, admiringly. "He'll be a great coach one day. The French forwards love him as their scrum-half because he almost coaches them on the pitch. He's always calculating, always working out ways of being one step – sometimes two steps, or three – ahead of the opposition. Along with Imanol Harinordoquy at No 8, he was pivotal against England."
Wales had their own strong influence at half-back in beating the Irish in Wellington: indeed, Mike Phillips may never have played a finer hand in a major international match, although one or two of his performances for the British and Irish Lions in South Africa two and a half years ago were out of the top drawer. It is one of the reasons Edwards believes this semi-final to be a 50-50 affair.
The statistics bear him out. Of the 88 games played between the two countries since the year 1900, Wales have won 43 – one more than the Tricolores. In terms of the total points tally across those contests, the gap is just two – in other words, a single miserable conversion – and when we move on to average scores per match, Wales stand on 14.74 while France are on 14.72. A difference of 0.02 per cent? Truly, you could not slip the fag paper from a Gauloise between the pair of them.
Talking of numbers, the Welsh defensive return against Ireland from their young back-row combination of Dan Lydiate, Sam Warburton and Toby Faletau was nothing short of staggering: 65 tackles, no misses. By way of reinforcing the point, the hard-running Irish loose forwards made 39 carries for a total of 44 metres gained. Talk about banging heads against brick walls.
This, of course, has something to do with Edwards, who could be seen in the dressing room at half-time, punching a fist into an open palm, demanding ever greater displays of commitment from his charges. "Where do big defensive displays come from? It's about understanding your role, about courage and fitness... a million different components," he said. "The thing that stood out for me in the Ireland game was the quality of our tackling. When you have a back row like we have making the tackles they did, it can't be too much fun carrying the ball against them.
"But we have to be better this weekend – more accurate and more intense. We've had our problems and disappointments in recent games with the French, mostly because we've hurt ourselves by giving them points from interceptions and chargedowns. We can't do that in a World Cup semi-final. Whatever points they score against us, we have to ensure they earn them."
As has been his wont, Liévremont again named his side early in the week – the kind of thing Clive Woodward liked to do during England's great run of success in the early 2000s, when he knew the opposition was more worried about his team than the other way round. "I would not have hesitated to name a different team from the one that played England if I felt it would have been better," Lièvremont said. "The danger is that our players start thinking they are too good. We are Latin, so there is always a risk. I hope the prospect of playing in the final will be enough to motivate them, because we have to impose our own style of rugby on this game."
Wales will probably make a judgement on Priestland tomorrow. They have two excellent standbys in Stephen Jones, the veteran Llanelli Scarlets stand-off who was the Lions' first-choice 10 in South Africa in 2009, and James Hook, one of the most gifted attacking midfielders in the European game. Priestland has been playing a blinder, however, despite being comfortably the least experienced of the three. The Red Dragons will want him there.
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