Mike Phillips may or may not be the best scrum-half in European rugby – those subscribing to this view, who include Phillips himself, can bring as evidence three wonderful Test performances for the British and Irish Lions against the Springboks last summer – but this much is certain: the Wales coach Warren Gatland considers him a better bet than Dwayne Peel, his immediate predecessor with the Lions. A day after recalling Peel to his squad, Gatland named Phillips ahead of him for Friday night's Six Nations meeting with France in Cardiff.
In a major reshuffle of the cards at No 9, the Cardiff Blues half-back Richie Rees will replace his club colleague Gareth Cooper in the starting line-up. With Cooper dropping out of the match-day squad altogether, there was a spare seat on the bench. Most observers assumed Peel, who plays his club rugby in England with Sale and is not in particularly good odour with Gatland because of it, would be selected there, on the grounds that while he had been injured, he had not been nearly as injured as Phillips. What was more, he had played for Wales during the autumn.
Yet it was the 27-year-old Phillips who appeared on the team sheet yesterday, despite having played only 40 minutes in the four months since he suffered a serious ankle injury while on Heineken Cup duty against Clermont Auvergne. "We couldn't ignore the opportunity to bring Mike back into the fold," Gatland said. "He's a world-class player champing at the bit to get back to international rugby and he can give us a different option off the bench. He may not be 100 per cent but he still has the best pass in the northern hemisphere and is a big physical presence. He won't let us down."
It is well known in Wales that Gatland wants his best players operating within the country's borders. Peel, reared in Llanelli, knew he was taking a gamble with his Test career when he joined Sale a couple of seasons back and was perfectly aware that he was upping the ante when he extended his contract at Edgeley Park just recently. Phillips has long been a target for English clubs himself, but as things stand, he is playing in the right place. He is also a serious handful for opposing back-row units, even one as good as the one France will field on Friday night. Peel may feel disheartened by this turn of events, but assuming his rival is capable of performing at something close to Test pitch, it is difficult to argue with Gatland's logic.
Thanks to injuries and nocturnal trips in golf buggies, the coach has been forced into further changes. Andrew Powell's vehicular issues after the victory over Scotland 10 days ago, which led to him being chucked out of the squad, mean a reappearance on the blind-side flank for Jonathan Thomas, who will bring a little more brainpower to Wales' game at close quarters as well as a fresh line-out threat. At lock, the long-serving Cardiff Blues man Deiniol Jones will partner the inexperienced Bradley Davies, who is currently in mourning after the sudden death of his mother.
Gatland might have asked one of Ian Gough and Luke Charteris, or possibly both, to do battle with Lionel Nallet and Pascal Pape at the Millennium Stadium. Gough is a hard case with a work-rate bordering on the epic while the freakishly tall Charteris was as impressive in Newport-Gwent Dragons' draw with Ulster last Friday as he had been disappointing in the opening Six Nations defeat by England. As it turned out, the coach went for neither.
The French, meanwhile, have been driven to make two changes to the side that hammered Ireland last time out. Benjamin Fall, the Bayonne wing, and Julien Bonnaire, the loose forward from Clermont Auvergne, replace the injured Vincent Clerc and Fulgence Ouedraogo respectively.
Wales v France Cardiff line-ups
L Byrne (Ospreys)
L Halfpenny (Blues)
J Hook (Ospreys)
J Roberts (Blues)
S Williams (Ospreys)
S Jones (Scarlets)
R Rees (Blues)
P James (Ospreys)
H Bennett (Ospreys)
A Jones (Ospreys)
B Davies (Blues)
D Jones (Blues)
J Thomas (Ospreys)
M Williams (Blues)
R Jones (Ospreys, c)
Replacements: K Owens (Scarlets), R Gill (Saracens), L Charteris (Dragons), S Warburton (Blues), M Phillips (Ospreys), A Bishop (Ospreys), T Shanklin (Blues).
C Poitrenaud (T'louse) B Fall (Bayonne)
M Bastareaud (Stade)
Y Jauzion (T'louse)
A Palisson (Brive)
F Trinh-Duc (Mont)
M Parra (Clermont)
T Domingo (Clermont) W Servat (Toulouse)
N Mas (Perpignan)
L Nallet (Racing)
P Pape (Stade)
T Dusautoir (T'louse, c)
J Bonnaire (Clermont) I Harinordoquy (Bia'tz)
Replacements: D Szarzewski (Stade), J Poux (Toulouse), J Pierre (Clermont), A Lapandry (Clermont), F Michalak (Toulouse),
D Marty (Perpignan),
J Malzieu (Clermont).
Referee J Kaplan (South Africa)
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