Wales prepare to repel French raiders from Grand Slam party

Click to follow
The Independent Online

The past has a habit of poking its nose in on Welsh rugby's biggest days and this evening at the Millennium Stadium it will do so with such powerful resonance that the Gallic visitors will surely not have the first sniff of spoiling the party. The trouble is that France, veritable Cyrano de Bergeracs of the oval-ball world, just to love play the role of gatecrashers, as Warren Gatland was only too quick to acknowledge yesterday.

Asked whether his side had considered the significance of winning their 10th Grand Slam 100 years almost to the day since Wales first completed the tournament's clean-sweep, or whether they have sought inspiration in the 30th anniversary of France coming to Cardiff and being humbled for a Grand Slam, the Kiwi shook his head very, very slowly.

"We haven't talked about what's gone before, about any of those things, or of how France have won here for the last five times or whatever it he is," he said. "We haven't even spoken about 2005. It's been all about tomorrow. The players don't want to let the opportunity slip by to win a Grand Slam, so for us it's been about making sure no stone has been left unturned and that we don't leave anything in tank. These guys have done that so far and are determined to do it again tomorrow."

So much for Gatland's earlier declaration that it is the Championship trophy that counts first and foremost. Granted, should Wales fall behind this evening there will be plenty of anxious eyes scanning the Millennium Stadium scoreboard to make sure the French do not gain the 20-point advantage they need to steal the silverware. Yet as the squad were put through their final paces at the stadium yesterday lunchtime, as 2,000 Welsh flags were placed on seats and the flame-throwers threw their test-jets of fire into the sky, it was easy to sense that home ambitions begin and end with victory at 6.45pm today. And Jean-Baptiste Elissalde may just have helped in their mission.

"I agree totally with Elissalde's comments," announced Gatland with his by now traditional smirk. The France scrum-half may have done so unwittingly but he had just given the former All Black hooker his perfect team-talk. "Sincerely, we mustn't regard the Welsh team as a monster," said Elissalde.

"There is no comparison between the quality of their players and the quality of our players. The Welsh are not New Zealand, they are not the Australians, they are not the South Africans; they are just the Welsh. We mustn't go to Cardiff as victims. I want us to go there as favourites. There is no reason to allow ourselves to be submerged by the red wave which will break at the start of the game."

The petit general with the out-of-proportion gob is right in one regard: Wales are certainly not New Zealand, though perhaps it would favour France if they were. After all, it was only five months ago that Bernard Laporte's Bleus came here for a quarter-final and stunned the planet – again – by knocking out the World Cup's overwhelming favourites.

Since then so much has changed. France have gone into full experimental mode while Wales have undergone a coaching revolution. While the former may have put more emphasis on experience this time around – Marc Lièvremont's XV is full of names which British viewers might actually recognise – the latter arrive with all the momentum and all the confidence, as proven by Gatland's request to have the roof closed. That means one thing: Wales are planning to beat France at their own game. They intend to out-run the runners.

Every other management team would have looked at the incessant drizzle and licked his wet lips at the prospect of Vincent Clerc and co being bogged down in the mud. Not Gatland and his assistants. "We're not going to change our game," he said.

"We've asked the roof to be shut for every match, not just for the way we play but also because we know what sort of atmosphere it does create in here. And the ground does still get a little bit greasy."

That would favour Wales's kicking tactic of keeping the ball in play, although it may again be two other factors that make all the difference – the defence and Shane Williams. Both could be record-breakers.

Wales have so far only conceded two tries in the Championship and should they limit French to one touchdown or keep them out altogether, they will better England's mark of four, set in 2002 and 2003. Williams needs just one more try to break Gareth Thomas's national record of 40 and so endear himself even more to the rugby public. The sponsor's poll to decide the best player of the Championship apparently already has Williams miles clear of the field.

Like Wales and their Championship, the winger's victory seems assured. It just remains to be seen whether the trophies are lifted in joy or anti-climax.

How the trophy will be won

*If Wales beat France, they win the Grand Slam.

*France must beat Wales by at least 20 points to win the Six Nations title.

*If Wales lose by 18 points or fewer they would still be crowned Six Nations champions.

*If Wales lose to France by 19 points, the two teams would be level on points difference and the title would go to the team with the most tries in the tournament. Currently, Wales and France have both scored 11.

*If Wales lose by 19 points and the tries scored tally is equal then the title will be shared.

Comments