Sam Warburton misses Paris and may find Lions place in doubt
One of Sam Warburton's few weaknesses as an open-side flanker of undisputed class is his lamentable record of physical malfunction: or to put it more simply, he spends too much time on the casualty list.
The Wales captain will miss tomorrow's difficult Six Nations meeting with France in Paris after failing to recover from a "stinger" injury suffered during last weekend's home defeat by Ireland and as a result, the brilliant Justin Tipuric will start the game – a development that could have all manner of ramifications.
The way Tipuric is playing just at the moment, he will push extremely hard for a place in the British and Irish Lions squad for this summer's business in Australia – a party Warburton, above, was hotly tipped to lead at the start of the season. With Sean O'Brien of Ireland also in the very finest fettle and the England captain Chris Robshaw determined to force his way into the No 7 mix, the squeeze on places is likely to be very tight indeed.
Wales have made two further changes to their starting combination, with the highly-skilled Ospreys hooker Richard Hibbard replacing the Lions Test forward Matthew Rees of Scarlets in the front row, and the hard-wearing Ryan Jones easing Aaron Shingler out of the blind-side flanker's role. In Warburton's absence, Jones will lead the side for the 30th time – an ongoing record.
"France will be smarting after losing their opening game in Italy, but Paris is a wonderful place to go – loud, noisy, a great rugby arena – and we should be looking forward to this," Jones said. "It's something we've been trying to instil into the guys this week. It's a going to be a pretty fierce opening, but let's have a real good crack."
Rob Howley, the former scrum-half charged with running Red Dragon affairs while the head coach Warren Gatland spends the tournament casting an eye over the Lions contenders, looked as white as a sheet during the first half of last weekend's game, when Ireland established a winning lead before the interval.
"It wasn't good enough," interim coach Howley said after confirming his line-up. "That first half won't be replicated. Our discipline let us down: you need field position in international rugby, and we gave the Irish a lot of field position. But when you look at what happened, it's all fixable. I know we will start better this weekend." Brave words indeed.
France, meanwhile, have made just two changes to their side – at least half a dozen too few in the eyes of fans who watched their collective slippage and subsidence in Rome five days ago.
Mathieu Bastareaud of Toulon, pretty much the Gallic equivalent of England's bowling-ball centre Manu Tuilagi, returns to midfield in place of Florian Fritz, the Toulouse centre, while the low-profile Toulon lock Jocelino Suta replaces Pascal Papé, the Stade Français second row – who limped out of the defeat in Rome last weekend – in the engine room.
"I am keeping people together so we can find collective solutions rather than individual ones," explained Philippe Saint-André, the coach. "I was angered by the Italy game, but we will now see the true nature of this group."
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