Wales' destiny rests on French style

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The Independent Online
TIM GLOVER

reports from Cardiff

Wales' only chance of avoiding another whitewash at the Arms Park today is if France, who rarely travel as well as their wines, are in two minds as to how victory should be achieved. So far this season they have displayed a variety of styles, not all of them fashionable.

France began the year as Five Nations favourites and should, deservedly, win the championship. They beat England by taking on the English forwards, especially in the line-out, and seemed to travel to Murrayfield without a care in the world.

Scotland stunned a complacent, sluggish France with their speed and elan after which the French made their customary use of the guillotine. By the time Ireland travelled to Paris, France had settled on a decent half- back pairing of Guy Accoceberry and Thomas Castaignede and the Irish were cut to pieces.

France scored seven tries, a statistic which should secure them the championship ahead of England and Scotland, and the introduction of the young centre Stephane Glas for the injured Thierry Lacroix gave them an extra cutting edge.

The sight of breaking Glas exposed a woeful Irish midfield defence. Five years ago the 22-year-old student from Bourgoin suffered from a malformation of his spinal column and was advised to give up the game. He took up body building and athletics before returning to rugby. "This seems like an impossible dream," he said. "I didn't expect to play for France and now I'm being compared to some of our great players."

In Paris he has been compared, somewhat prematurely, to Philippe Sella. Having gone open, rugby has developed the sort of grapevine long familiar in association football and the vine is currently travelling on Eurostar between Paris and London. Sella's move to Saracens has prompted speculation that at least half the present French side will follow him across the channel and the French federation seem powerless to intervene. "It would quickly find itself in the European Court of Justice if it tried to bar players from the national team," Guy Drut, France's sports minister, said.

Wales, who have lost their last eight championship matches, made three changes - Neil Jenkins for Arwel Thomas, Gareth Thomas for Wayne Proctor and Christian Loader for Andrew Lewis - from the team that conceded four tries to Ireland and despite the fact that all three are defensive moves, they maintain there will be no retreat from what the coach Kevin Bowring describes as "handball".

"We need to cut out basic errors and show better control and decision making," Bowring said. "We need a more physical edge and quicker support from the forwards." Like France, Wales, with Leigh Davies doing a Glas, sliced open the Irish midfield but they do not appear to have the back row, Gwyn Jones apart, to capitalise on a wide game.

Where Wales were really naive is in allowing the stand-off Thomas, who didn't know his Arwel from his elbow after being worked over in the eighth minute, to carry on. The 21-year-old Thomas, not surprisingly, proceeded to have a torrid time of it. The only consolation for Wales is that they left Dublin with two cracking tries.

"We've worked too hard and contributed too much to this championship to leave it with nothing," Jonathan Humphreys, the Wales captain, said. "France are the best side in the Five Nations and will provide a true test of what we can do."

Jenkins, with his 30th cap at stand-off, a modest number by today's standards, breaks Cliff Morgan's record which only goes to show how many outside- halves Wales have used since Morgan was strutting his stuff in the days when Spam was a delicacy.

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