France turn to inglorious Bastareaud
Saint-Andre: talked about the need for his players to arm themselves with hate today
SIX NATIONS:Philippe Saint-Andre talked this week about the need for his players to arm themselves with hate against Wales this afternoon, which is one reason why he recalled Mathieu Bastareaud, a centre with the build of a prop who treats defenders with contempt.
Big Bastareaud will form a Toulon midfield triangle with Frederic Michalak and Maxime Mermoz as Saint-Andre, the France coach, looks to salvage their Six Nations campaign after a ruinous start in Rome.
Toulon are the Top 14 leaders, but owe their position to a dominant, largely non-French pack and the boot of Jonny Wilkinson.
Saint-Andre has become obsessed with size and the Wales three-quarter line is one of the biggest in the history of international rugby.
Skill, not stature, was the men in red’s undoing in their opening match against Ireland and the Stade de France will play host to two teams looking to rediscover themselves.
Full Top 14 programme
France are the only team in the Six Nations who do not have constant access to players throughout the tournament. There was a full Top 14 programme the week before the trip to Rome and players will return to their clubs on the two fallow weekends: the bulk of Saint-Andre’s team is taken from Toulon and Toulouse.
The two clubs meet on March 2nd, on the weekend between Les Bleus’ trips to Twickenham and Dublin.
The coach has, like his immediate predecessors, raged against a system that works against the national side. Saint-Andre plays Michalak at 10, but he has made two appearances in the position for Toulon this season, with Laporte playing him at scrumhalf as Wilkinson’s partner.
Saint-Andre brought Wilkinson to France but will now hope the Englishman retires at the end of the season. You cannot buy success in international rugby.
Wales are part of the supply line to France. James Hook has become bench fodder for them, despite a lack of creativity and spark in midfield that has cost Wales in the past 10 months (they keep pointing out how most of the matches in their run of eight consecutive defeats have been close without reflecting on an inability to create tries at pivotal moments), but he is the first-choice outhalf at Perpignan.
There has been an air of desperation in both camps this week.
“Everyone wants to believe that what happened in Italy was an accident,” said Mermoz, while Wales prop Gethin Jenkins, who is looking to leave Toulon and return to Cardiff Blues, lamented the errors that had blighted Wales since last year’s Grand Slam.
Both sides lacked leadership at crucial moments in the opening round, rattled when their opponents were composed. Saint-Andre, like the Wales coach, Robert Howley, resisted temptation to indulge in wholesale changes, but whoever loses will feel the heat of public opprobrium and it may be a good evening for the injured and beleaguered Wales captain Sam Warburton to sit out.
Justin Tipuric will be on the openside for Wales in his second Six Nations start. He will be up against the highly experienced Thierry Dusautoir, and if the breakdown will, as ever, be a key part of the game, and the reason why Jenkins is preferred to the stronger scrummager Paul James at loose-head prop, both teams will need to operate there as more of a unit than they did last week.
Warburton has become the scapegoat for Wales’s failings in the tackle area against Ireland.
Wales have a better record at the Stade de France than they had at Parc des Princes, successful in three of their first four matches at the ground, and have won four of their past five away matches in the Six Nations, but in recent years they have struggled when momentum is against them.
So do France, but they tend to descend into and escape from depression more quickly.
Defeat in Rome followed four successive victories, including three emphatic successes over Rugby Championship sides, two against Argentina and one against Australia.
With demanding journeys to England and Ireland in the next two rounds, losing to Wales would make them wooden spoon rather than title contenders and that should be motivation enough in a battle of the fallible.