Laporte tiptoes into misfiring Dragons' den

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The Independent Online

"Vive la France", "Long live Mike Ruddock" - two chants that may just be competing for air space on the riotous streets of the Welsh capital tonight.

By then France could, should have clinched their third Six Nations title in five years and Wales might have become the third team in history to go from Grand Slammers to Wooden Spoonists in one short 12-months. So much to win, so much more to lose.

Wales, of course, have become mighty used to losing things this season; coaches primarily, although self-respect has run them a close second. Scott Johnson, the Australian who swaggered up to the bridge vacated by Ruddock's mid-tournament jump or push (whichever you believe), is understood to be returning home immediately, but as the favoured conspiracy goes that he was complicit in this most mysterious of departures the tears may only be flowing from the players. They still adore him. At least that much is certain.

And very little else is in a country that, in the past seven weeks, has been rocked by the sport that is its very foundation. Every day seems to have brought another sensational headline and even now they are not drying up. Yesterday, the Welsh newspapers screamed "Captain to quit", after Gareth Thomas reportedly said that an injury to an artery in his neck makes him afraid ever to put stud to turf again. "Nonsense," Thomas declared yesterday. "I'll be back playing next season."

What state he will find Welsh rugby in is anyone's guess. Although a free-running lung-buster is eagerly awaited here at the Millennium Stadium today, the real fun and games are expected to begin after the final whistle. Unfair dismissal tribunals, emergency general meetings, executive coups, coaching reinstatements... anything is possible in a period when a few heads will doubtless roll.

None of which interested Bernard Laporte one iota as he put the finishing touches to his France side for a match which could provide the ideal platform to launch a bid for the World Cup taking place in their own backyard next year. "Our opponents are important, I guess, as they are part of the game," said the French coach, as generous as ever. "But the only real important thing is the way we perform. Fate is in our hands."

He knows how careless those digits can be; indeed he has suffered first-hand experience of it this season, when his men dropped a clanger large enough to deafen Quasimodo with an opening day's defeat in Edinburgh. Since then they have turned their form around convincingly enough to be standing one touchdown away from equalling their own Six Nations record for tries in a championship, 17. "We have proved we can attack," said Laporte, painfully aware that to the demanding "bourgeois de merde" back home they have done nothing of the sort.

For despite skipping over the English line three times six days ago, it was still noted that all but one of these were "gifted" rather than "created", just as they had been against Ireland. The boos rang out in Paris after that 43-31 "scare" last month and anything but victory today would herald them again, no matter if the northern hemisphere's most illustrious silverware is still lifted.

Perhaps this little realisation is why the French players sounded nothing like French players yesterday. "The job is not yet finished," warned Thomas Castaignède, their born-again full-back. "Fear is a necessary evil before the battle in Cardiff."

Have they really got much to fear against a side thumped by England and Ireland and heavily slapped last week by Italy? Well, bizarrely, yes, and not just because this fixture has traditionally thrown up thrilling surprises, not least Wales's 24-18 jaw-dropper last year when France were 15-6 up at half-time and doing handstands.

France may again hold all the power up front, but their ceaseless desire to play it open gives Wales a sniff, especially if they can put together the kind of seamless opening they staged against Ireland and Italy. "Sooner or later the ball's going to stick and someone's going to pay," said Stephen Jones, although in truth that is hard to envisage unless the No 8 Alix Popham can complete the work of five men.

Last year Thomas, Tom Shanklin, Ryan Jones, Gethin Jenkins and Brent Cockbain carried the ball into tackles and drew in enough defenders to allow the backs their precious freedom. This year, glaringly, nobody has stepped forward. Popham, the young Llanelli Scarlet, has been chosen ahead of Colin Charvis to do just that.

In reality, when Laporte said "beware the injured Dragon" he was probably not aware how true his words were - this particular dragon has had so many injuries that even St George might have called for James Herriot. New Zealand apart, there is not another Test side who could begin to cope with losing so many front-liners as Wales have this last year - 14 at the last count. It is a valid excuse for failure. But for a wooden spoon? Never.

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