History will be made at the Millennium Stadium today when the first Six Nations match is played in Britain on a Friday night. But as Robin McBryde, the Wales forwards coach, suggested yesterday, this will not be the most tasteful sort of history. The ex-Lions hooker talked of "bowing to the demands of television" and admitted that from the Welsh team's point of view the 8pm start "is not ideal". The Welsh Rugby Union has come in for criticism from travelling fans annoyed at the problems caused by both the game being staged on a working day and the match ending so late in regards to the limitations of public transport. Judging by McBryde's statements it seems the Welsh camp is also disgruntled by the decision to rip up tradition following the perceived success of last year's guinea pig France-Wales collision in Paris.
"I didn't think I'd ever see the day that we would be playing an international in Cardiff at 8pm," said McBryde. "The regions usually play at 7pm at the latest – and the one-hour change makes a difference. The day becomes very long for the players. I suppose we are bowing to the demands of television. It's not ideal. We just have to get on with it."
That happens to be all Warren Gatland's men have heard for the last fortnight – "get on with it". Wales have begun their first two Six Nations matches like golf buggies and to do so again against Marc Lièvremont's Bugatti would see the French down the motorway and out of sight. There would be little chance of any dramatic 17-points-in-the-last-four-minutes comebacks, a la against Scotland.
"There's not many better teams than France once they get their tails up," pointed out McBryde. "They then get into their offloading game and all the 'Allez Les Bleus' start up. We need to start well – that's the most important thing. We have spoken about being accurate and having clarity in everything we do early on – just to give ourselves a chance."
To this end the Andy Powell controversy may actually have helped. Gatland was understandably furious at the blindside's early-hour buggy drive down the M4 after the Scotland celebrations and was ruthless in his ejection. There was always a danger of cracks being papered over in the Lazarus euphoria. Not after those headlines there wasn't.
Gatland and Shaun Edwards have laid into the squad, warning that this physical French unit have the capability to trample all over their weaknesses. "They will attack first up front," said McBryde. "They have a big pack and will look to use their strength. The tackle area will be key. We have to deal with the opposition but also with the referee's interpretation. We fell down in that area against Scotland. Warren has met [the referee] Jonathan Kaplan this week and talked with him about what he wants from the tackle area."
The effectiveness of Martyn Williams has come under scrutiny for the first time in recent history, with even Gatland publicly questioning the veteran's right to the No 7 shirt. Little surprise therefore, that Williams has been one of the most charged up in a build up which has seen the players direct the hairdryer on each other. "Wednesday night's training session was one of the loudest I've ever been part of," said McBryde. "The players didn't mind being critical of each other. A couple of balls went down and they weren't waiting for the coaches to say something. Stephen Jones, Ryan Jones and Martyn were the most vocal but it was across the board. The players realise it is up to them. Everyone is aware there is another level in us."
If they fail to reach it, the Championship will be over for the Dragonhood. But France have been hit by injuries and might just be vulnerable. Indeed, if Wales are still in touch on the hour mark, with Mike Phillips, the scrum-half, coming off the bench, they could have the edge in what is sure to be an electric atmosphere under the roof and the floodlights.
Phillips might have only played 40 minutes in four months since tearing ankle ligaments and is obviously lacking match fitness. But as McBryde revealed, "Mike's swagger seems as good as it ever was." How Wales could do with showing some of that tonight. Before the watershed, that is.Reuse content