Wales hope Justin Tipuric can pull side out of nosedive against France
Late revival against the Irish gives Howley's men optimism to face 'angry' and wounded France
Saturday 09 February 2013
Lies, damned lies and rugby statistics. Every number crunched out of Wales's opening Six Nations engagement with Ireland last weekend pointed to a home victory. More possession than England enjoyed in thumping Scotland, 65 per cent of the match played on Irish territory, more line breaks, fewer penalties conceded, forcing the Irish into 176 tackles; it is a lengthy list but it is missing the key number, the one that makes the rest irrelevant.
"When you lose," said Rob Howley, Wales's stand-in coach, "it certainly focuses the mind." Wales should then have an intense focus when they emerge into the Gallic din of the Stade de France this evening, ushered out of the away changing room under instruction to correct a run of eight straight losses.
The last five of those have come on home turf, the worst sequence in Welsh history, but a change of scenery offers no obvious relief. Wales have won only three times in Paris since 1975, the last eight years ago.
But so much for the numbers game. This is the fixture that does not add up. The Grand Slam champions against the pre-competition favourites, both scrabbling winless in Italy's wake. Both contemplating glasses half empty. For the loser the season will be reduced to the dregs.
The response by the respective coaches has been one of restraint. Howley has made three changes, one enforced by Sam Warburton's shoulder injury, his opposite number Philippe Saint-André just two and one of those was also down to injury, to his captain Pascal Papé. "It's in defeat that we learn," suggested Saint-André coolly.
In Papé's absence, Saint-André has returned the captaincy to Thierry Dusautoir. The Welsh are also led from the back row by a returning captain in Ryan Jones, one of three survivors of their last victory in Paris, and it is the contest in the back row that will do much to determine the direction of travel. That and the performances of the two No 10s, both of whom, Frédéric Michalak and Dan Biggar, are under grumbling pressure to justify their coaches' faith.
Justin Tipuric came off the bench to dramatic and immediate effect against Ireland. His dynamism invigorated the men in red and he would have been handed the No 7 shirt whether Warburton had been fit or not. It will only be the 23-year-old Osprey's fourth outing in the Six Nations – and 12th cap in all – but he has already won many admirers, not least the former England captain Lewis Moody, who views him as a potential British Lion in waiting.
In the blue corner, Dusautoir has described the mood in the French camp this week as "angry". An autumn campaign that featured a drubbing of Australia raised expectations ahead of the Six Nations but Rome was a humbling experience. "We weren't good enough to win a Six Nations match," said Dusautoir. "We have to tell ourselves that the tournament didn't end in Rome. I think our pride was hurt enough that we will be able to get ourselves up for the Welsh game."
That is a cue for an early onslaught from a physical home side – the return of the rumbustious Mathieu Bastareaud in the centre adds ever more bulk (at over 18st he is heavier than any of England's front row) – and it was Welsh failings in the opening stages against Ireland that were to prove decisive.
Wales conceded three tries in their entire campaign last season; Ireland matched that in 43 minutes in Cardiff. Management and players have been at a loss to explain the sluggish, error-strewn opening.
"The atmosphere was there, spurring us on, but it just didn't happen for us," said Gethin Jenkins, who will collect his 96th cap today.
"We didn't have that edge you need in that first 20 minutes. We've talked about it a lot. I don't think there is much you can change. Everyone is mentally focused, it's about getting pumped up and rising to the challenge."
One element that must rise to the challenge is the Welsh blitz defence. Shaun Edwards has been forced to defend his defensive methods this week, insisting that it was not the idea that failed, rather the men putting it into practice – if they had blitzed as instructed then Ireland would certainly not have scored that soft opening try.
It will be thoroughly tested again this evening. France did show sparks against Italy, Benjamin Fall's excellent try demonstrating the side's inherent ability, and on French soil they remain rarely bettered.
Yet as ever France flick between extremes with a shrug of the shoulders. The autumn saw Australia utterly routed, with Michalak effortlessly pulling the strings, and 39 points scored against Argentina. The mercurial Toulon No 10 was poor against Italy but Saint-André has stuck with him, as has Howley with Biggar, fitful against Ireland and at fault for one try. This is a struggle of the imperfect 10s. Biggar settled in the second period last weekend – Tipuric swung the momentum and suddenly he had the space to conduct proceedings and show flashes of his regional form.
"Dan warmed to the task and his second-half display was good," said Howley. "He did well to recover from the mistake of the charge-down [that cost a try] and we must not put pressure on the No 10.
"There are 23 players who play for Wales. The No 10 is an individual who has a style of play that can offer us a lot, and we are prepared to give Dan the time he needs."
Where the game will be won and lost
The first 20 minutes
Expect a thunderous opening between two sides with amends to make. Wales were terrible in the opening minutes against Ireland and it cost them the game. France too have been uneasy starters – conceding early scores to England and Ireland at home last year before successfully playing catch up.
Both last week's captains are consigned to the stands through injury – their stand-ins, Ryan Jones and Thierry Dusautoir, both have ample experience but need wider support. A lack of leadership from senior players was a feature of the respective defeats in Cardiff and Rome.
Marks out of 10
Neither Frédéric Michalak nor Dan Biggar shone on the opening weekend. This is a huge test for Biggar, in whom Rob Howley has shown admirable faith, as Philippe Saint-André has in Michalak and his half-back partner Maxime Machenaud, who were poor against Italy.
If the Welsh lose again... they could always take up boxing?
If the Welsh were boxers, they'd be on the ropes given their recent run. But if it doesn't work out for them on the pitch they could always try a bit of pugilism. It is paying off for the former All Black Sonny Bill Williams and the former Aussie fly-half Quade Cooper.
Williams won his sixth pro fight yesterday in farcical circumstances when the heavyweight title bout with Francois Botha in Brisbane was cut short. Williams was in trouble against the South African but won on points. But there was confusion when the bout, scheduled for 12 rounds, was ended after 10.
Cooper won his maiden bout with a first-round knockout.
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