We must prevent French pack winning ugly, says Rees
Wales hooker, who is set to win 50th cap today, aims to make up for missing the World Cup fun
Saturday 17 March 2012
Warren Gatland could not be said to have picked a small set of forwards this season – unless one compares the Lurch-like Ian Evans and all 20st of Adam Jones to the behemoths the coach sticks on the wings, of course. But if there has been a Welsh party line about today's match in Cardiff, it has been that France have picked a particularly big pack of plug-uglies, with which they intend to smash and crash about in a manner entirely unbecoming to such a glorious occasion.
Yesterday Matthew Rees, the hooker and former captain who will win his 50th cap today, joined in.
"The changes France have made up front, they are definitely going to try to come here and bully us," said the 2009 Lion who has – obviously – never been much of a shrinking violet himself. "That is one thing we have got to be mindful of. They have picked a front five to try to irritate us and see how we respond to that.
"We are at home, and France will probably want to come here and spoil the party. We have to make sure we deliver on the day."
Rees had a point, of course – Yoann Maestri, the young Toulouse lock of whom France expect a lot, is a big unit, about the size of a Simon Shaw and a half. If anything, his displays in the Six Nations have been criticisable for being a little hesitant, but William Servat, Julien Bonnaire and Thierry Dusautoir are not in any way shy or retiring.
Despite all this, Rees, like Wales, is in confident mood. "As far as I am concerned," he said, "whenever we have played at home I don't think there is any team that has come out on top. As a pack, we've got plenty of experience and hunger there. We are relishing the challenge."
Rees does not lack for such "experience and hunger" himself. Since the aforementioned Lions tour he has had a frustrating time with injury – to the neck, unsurprisingly for a hooker – and he missed the 2011 World Cup in New Zealand. That tournament having seen Wales fall just short in a semi-final against France, under the popular leadership of a new captain, the flanker Sam Warburton, it might reasonably be assumed that Rees has something to prove.
"After missing out on the World Cup and the opening Six Nations games, to get the 50th cap is a great achievement for myself," he said. "We are at home, going for the Grand Slam in front of a full house. You couldn't ask for a better game to be involved in.
"Before the World Cup, the neck injury was a bit of a concern, but after seeing the surgeon I was happy there were not going to be any issues after the operation and I would come back playing. As much as it was all doom and gloom at the beginning, I could see light at the end of the tunnel.
"You can't underestimate how big the World Cup was for us as a nation, and after it we were always going to be favourites to win this Six Nations. The biggest thing for me is we've come a long way in the last 18 months, and the important thing now is we don't get carried away and [we] keep on building. It was always the big question mark: we'd had a great World Cup, but could we continue with that in the Six Nations? The boys have delivered it and it is important we grow again from here."
Seven of the team who will start against France are 24 or under. Rees, a comparatively geriatric 31 and a bit, said: "I think this group of players have taken us to the next level. Our fitness has gone to another level, which has been great because we are coming through strong at the end of games.
"We have got a lot of young boys in the team who are going to be around a lot longer than the senior guys. It is impressive what the younger guys are doing. George North is a rare breed. We all thought we would struggle when Shane [Williams] retired, but we've got George and Alex Cuthbert on the scene, which is great for us.
"We know how great a player Shane has been, and for the likes of George and Alex to step in can only be good for us. There is a lot of competition in the squad, which drives players on."
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