Wales: Hansen prepares to cast off shackles

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The Independent Online

Steve Hansen knew the writing was on the wall for Graham Henry back in the autumn. "There's no question over Graham's self-discipline or his desire," Hansen said then of his fellow New Zealander. "At this moment, we've got to work a bit on his self-belief. He's had a tough time, everybody's got their opinion, and it's easy to shoot the coach."

It remains unclear whether the Welsh Rugby Union loaded the gun, or Henry turned it on himself, but the fatal bullet was fired last week, after Wales dismally lost 54-10 in Ireland. Hansen's initial visit was as an unofficial observer before becoming assistant coach to Henry in January. Now he is firmly in the firing line, as Henry's successor, with both France and a sceptical Welsh public ready to train their sights on the Great Redeemer Mk II in Cardiff this afternoon.

Hansen has been placed in charge only for the remainder of this season's Six Nations, despite holding a WRU contract through to the 2004 championship. Those who saw Henry soon after the announcement of his departure testified to his world-weariness, although he will undoubtedly bounce back, either in New Zealand, or perhaps much closer to his adopted home. Gloucester, Cardiff and Saracens – to name but three clubs – are in varying degrees of coaching turmoil.

Hansen, meanwhile, is set for a comparatively unfamiliar place in the sun – a benevolent weather forecast suggests the Millennium Stadium roof will not be needed – after guiding Canterbury to the New Zealand provincial championship last year. The 42-year-old father of four also won three successive Super 12 titles with the Crusaders, but that was as the right-hand man to Robbie Deans.

Henry's infamous pod system proved as easy as shelling peas for the Irish to work out. Hansen, who spent seven years pounding the beat as a policeman, may choose to take the handcuffs off Wales against an unpredictable French side. "The key thing for us is to do the basics well, enjoy the occasion and really be enthusiastic," Hansen said yesterday.

The locals could do with a transfusion of enthusiasm. Wales have not won a home match against a major nation since beating Scotland in March 2000. Yesterday, there were tickets on sale on the eve of a major international for the first time since the 72,500 capacity Millennium Stadium opened in 1999.

The last meeting between these two sides was a personal triumph for Neil Jenkins, whose full house of scoring inspired a 43-35 Welsh win in Paris. The carrot-topped fly-half – injured since the Lions tour – has been missed more than anyone might have predicted, and Henry's experiment with Iestyn Harris has temporarily been shelved, although the expensive convert from rugby league could yet do some damage from the bench. Instead Stephen Jones, in a rich vein of form with Llanelli, will call the shots at No 10 and hope to extract the best from an untried but muscular centre pairing of Andy Marinos and Tom Shanklin. The latter's father, Jim, won four caps for Wales in the 1970s, and thought nothing of jumping on a 15-hour flight to Japan last summer to see his son's Wales debut. This morning, Shanklin senior will board a minibus of family and friends to make the shorter but no less proud journey from Surrey to Cardiff.

To stand any chance of victory, Wales need a front five whose chest-puffing and busting eyeballs endure beyond the national anthems. Intriguingly, the only settled-looking area of Bernard Laporte's French side is the front row. Laporte's coaching staff is less backroom than ballroom, there are so many of them, yet the injuries continue to pile up. In addition to the long-term absentee Thomas Castaignède, there are six backs unavailable: Nicolas Jeanjean, Clément Poitrenaud, Christophe Dominici, David Bory, Frédéric Michalak and the captain, Fabien Galthié. Up front the absentees include Yannick Bru, although judging by the hooker's throwing-in during the 33-12 win over Italy a fortnight ago, his may not be much of a loss.

The same cannot be said of the prince of flankers, Olivier Magne, who finds himself suspended for the second time in three Six Nations' Championships, for stamping against Italy. David Auradou, the Stade Français second row sent to the sin-bin for use of the boot in the same match, has been dropped by Laporte. "We have had four wins on the trot," said the coach, "but this is our first away match, so I'm excited at the prospect of seeing how the players react." As for Magne's replacement, little is known of Imanol Harinordoquy – other than that he would make a fantastic score in Scrabble – but the Basque openside who plays for Pau is the 57th player selected for Test action by Laporte in a chop-and-change last 12 months. Change for the better? Hansen and Laporte are about to find out.

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