Wales have to disrupt French flow

FIVE NATIONS' CHAMPIONSHIP: The holders are the underdogs as they seek their first victory at the Parc des Princes for 20 years Ian Borthwick reports from Paris on a mission improbable for the champions
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It is 20 years since Wales have won in France, and in the land of Cartesian logic there are few reasons to believe that the unhappy sequence will end today.

For, despite being reigning Five Nations champions, despite the support of the Princess of Wales, here on a most official-looking "unofficial" visit, and despite having roped in JPR Williams, who played full-back in that five-try Welsh festival on 18 January 18, 1975, Wales are faced with an almost impossible task.

Wayne Proctor's withdrawal this week brought to seven the number of players unavailable through sickness or injury. In contrast, the French, who will be sporting a new jersey, will not only field the same 15 players who beat the All Blacks twice in New Zealand last summer, but have also trained with a calm and quiet confidence rarely if ever seen in a French camp.

"Yes, we are calm and composed, more so than in the past," Pierre Berbizier, the French coach said. "Our experience in New Zealand has allowed us to mature and to become aware of our own strengths. Perhaps it is the World Cup which is focusing the minds of our players, but I find them much more concentrated and receptive than before."

A recent newspaper poll showed that 56 per cent of French voters thought France would win the Championship against 31 per cent for England, with Wales a distant fourth with only four per cent.

"We are very respectful of the French and their recent achievements, but we are also mindful of our own performances," the Wales manager Rob Norster, said. "We are under no illusions - we are very much the underdogs - but we upset them in Cardiff last year, and we intend to do just the same here."

The Welsh captain, Gareth Llewellyn, remains optimistic despite the under-strength line-up and hopes that the predicted soft ground and blustery conditions will stifle French attempts to run the ball.

"I'd much rather play the French first than last," he said. "The last time we were here it was warm, which is what suits the French. However I am sure that they will be even more determined to beat us this time after our victory last year. We know we arenot going out as favourites, but if we could pull off a win it would show a lot of people what we are capable of."

Wales will be setting much store on the contribution of the front five who performed so well against the Springboks, while looking for the half-backs, Neil Jenkins and Robert Jones, who returns for his 49th cap, to dictate the game and put the French under pressure with their tactical kicking. The lineout performance of Llewellyn, and the 6ft 10in Derwyn Jones, playing his second international, will be crucial.

They will jump against Olivier Merle and Olivier Roumat respectively. "The line-out always depends on the referee, but I don't think Derwyn will be too worried about Roumat," Llewellyn said.

Roumat, who with 47 caps is now one of the world's most respected line-out specialists, does not seem unduly worried by Jones, either, or the three-inch difference in height. "I'll just do what I always do when I'm up against someone taller than me: I'lladapt," the former captain said.

Berbizier, meanwhile, returned to one of his familiar themes, and called upon British teams to take more responsibility in the game and to play more spectacular rugby.

"We don't expect the British, and the Welsh in particular, to take much initiative in the game," he said. "Their game plan will be very simple: win the ball and pressure us with kicks, but they won't take any risks."

He added that if the Five Nations' Championship was to retain its credibility, the teams involved also had to think about providing a quality spectacle.

"If the championship wants to evolve, it must produce great matches," he said. "This current situation of sticking to risk-free rugby is not a good thing for European rugby.

"It is no accident that a northern hemisphere team has never won the World Cup, and when you see that England finished first equal last year and only scored two tries in four games, it is time they started being more ambitious."