Wales must turn on style to beat French at their own game

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The Independent Online

Caution was the watchword on the streets of Paris yesterday as people tried to assess the various merits of the two teams as unbeaten Wales and France prepared to square up to each other at the Stade de France this afternoon.

The proverbial fag paper would snag if you tried to slip it between the two teams. Both have beaten England and neither has lost yet. Now today comes "Le Crunch", because so much hinges on the outcome of this Six Nations match - possibly a Championship and a Grand Slam.

The remarkable thing about these two sides so far has been their contrasting performances. Wales have rumbled confidently to their two wins, whereas an out-of-sorts France have stumbled to their victories.

Fans of Les Bleus have wrung their hands at the absence of the traditional French flair, so the coach, Bernard Laporte, who has been criticised for his team's 10-man approach, has rung the changes, and the team looks a lot more balanced. A lot more threatening, up front and out wide.

Even Mike Ruddock, the Wales coach, has admitted as much. "The changes made by Bernard Laporte make this the strongest team France have fielded so far." One critical element of the French selection could be the debutant full-back Julien Laharrague, a self-confessed lunatic on the field, who admits: "I am here to boost the team, spice up the game and add a bit of extravagance to the match. I am capable of doing crazy things because that's what I do with my club. Modern rugby leaves a lot of space for improvisation and spontaneity. We must try things. You don't get anything if you don't."

Laharrague has been given licence to thrill. The team manager, Jo Maso, said: "We want him to be as natural with us as he is with Brive. If he makes mistakes, we will not blame him."

France have a slight edge in the set piece and at the line-out which should give promising possession to their pacy backs, but it is the lurking presence of Serge Betsen, the supreme scavenger and scourge of England a fortnight ago, which poses the most serious threat to Wales' hopes of victory.

As a result, Ruddock has adopted a black outlook - or more precisely, an All Black outlook - for today's confrontation. Firstly, he is taking a leaf out of Graham Henry's book, when the New Zealander urged his 1999 team to "be bold" in Paris. They were and won a thriller by a point.

Ruddock says: "We want to play a high-tempo game, so we need to get hold of the ball early on and put pressure on the French. We have improved as a pack, but we haven't got the armoury to manhandle the best packs in the world - so the best thing for us is to get the ball out to Shane Williams, Gareth Thomas and Kevin Morgan who can create problems for any team in the world." The other All Black aspect to Ruddock's preparations has been to study in minute detail the video of the New Zealanders' 45-6 demolition of Les Bleus at the same venue last November. That proved very revealing to the canny Ruddock.

"At Twickenham, England struggled to get quick ball away from the contact areas because people like Betsen were slowing it down there. The All Blacks cleared out away from the tackle area very quickly, and they were attacking spaces and getting their offload game going. That prevented the French coming up in defence. We want to do that, free up the ball in contact to try to reproduce the flow the All Blacks had."

That brings things back to Betsen. As long as he has completely recovered from his thigh injury, then his potential influence on the outcome cannot be underestimated. "He is a great player and he will be a good test for our back row," says Ruddock.

"But we want to play a brand of rugby that promotes a game where we avoid contact if possible and attack space." But there will be contact. Shuddering collisions all over the place. Wales need to win ball and spin it wide, to use their own speedy strike force and employ their own brand of French flair to destroy the home team. But France - and Betsen - might have other ideas.

* A minute's silence will be observed before the game in memory of the former France captain Jean Prat, who died yesterday, aged 81. Prat, a flanker, won 51 caps between 1945 and 1955 and coached France between 1963 and 1968.