Warren Gatland’s priority is simply to beat France after Dublin demolition
‘We just need to get out there and perform,’ says Wales prop Gethin Jenkins
Wales captain Sam Warburton and coach Warren Gatland face the press earlier this week.
Warren Gatland told his Wales squad at the start of the Six Nations to think and act like champions as they chased an unprecedented third successive title, but an unconvincing home victory against Italy followed by their heaviest championship defeat under the head coach in Dublin has had such a chastening impact that their priority is simply to beat France tonight under the closed roof of the Millennium Stadium.
Gatland, who responded to a one-sided defeat in the Irish capital four years ago by doing some weeding work to his squad one year out from a World Cup, has warned his players of the consequences of another passive performance and defeat. He has not, though, been in sergeant-major mode this week: the shouting and barking has been done by those who will take the field in mea culpa acts of self-flagellation.
“The answer comes from within ourselves,” said the wing Alex Cuthbert, who as an outside back was a virtual spectator in Dublin with his pack so routed that Wales struggled to take play beyond a couple of phases.
For a team that had come together during the 2011 World Cup, reaching the semi-finals where they lost by a point to France having played the last hour with 14 men, and gone on to win the following two Six Nations, it was a humiliating experience that they were not used to.
“Many words have been spoken, but we just need to get out there and perform,” said the prop Gethin Jenkins. “We are not used to losing games in the Six Nations and there is a considerable amount of confidence in the squad because of what we have achieved together.
“Perhaps we let our standards slip in the build-up to the Ireland game, but we have had a good look at ourselves and there has been an edge in training this week with everyone a lot sharper.”
Gatland has dropped his experienced scrumhalf Mike Phillips, whose frustration throughout against Ireland as his forwards struggled to deliver possession turned into a yellow card at the end for starting a skirmish, and replaced him with Rhys Webb, a player who prefers space to contact and likes to get his back line moving with alacrity.
Wales first have to win possession, which means recalibrating their scrum, organising their lineout, where the return of Luke Charteris should provide them with banker ball, and asserting themselves at the breakdown where they were surprisingly outmanoeuvred by an Ireland team that met the opposition’s strengths head on and turned them into weaknesses.
It is unlikely that France will match Ireland in terms of organisation and detail. They played in spurts in their home victories over England and Italy, dominated for long periods, but they have individual flair an instinct Wales lack. The selection of George North in the centre, where he will rumble with his equally physically imposing opposite number Mathieu Bastareaud, reflects Gatland’s belief that the more a team thinks, the less physical it is.
Wales overload their outside-half Rhys Priestland tactically: he lacks a kicking and passing option outside him with Jonathan Davies injured and not enough use is made of Leigh Halfpenny as a second receiver. They are adept at bringing off moves from set-pieces, but their failure to react to the destruction of their gameplan against Ireland was indicative of how structured they have become.
If France, missing Thierry Dusautoir, control the breakdown, they have the attacking power to take advantage, but first they have to meet what will be a furious opening from the home side.
Wales will be out to impose themselves physically immediately and Les Bleus have to turn it into a battle of wits if the bottom side last year is to topple the team that finished top.
Some key tussles
Richard Hibbard v Dimitri Szarzewski
Two hirsute hookers who could have their own L’Oreal commercial, there’ll be hair flying at the very least. Both are physically powerful and direct. Hibbard’s tackling in the Six Nations has loosened fillings. They’re both susceptible to the wobblers at lineout time and France’s Yannick Nyanga will be keen to put the squeeze on Hibbard. Szarzewski has more options out of touch.There’s 60 minutes of toe-to-toe tussle in the offing.
Jamie Roberts & George North v Wesley Fofana & Mathieu Bastareaud
There should be some pretty hefty collisions between three of the four protagonists in midfield with Wesley Fofana, at 5ft 10 in tall and 13st 12lbs, Lilliputian in comparison. He’ll need all his exquisite footwork, angles and guile but if the Welsh get plenty of ball, the 26-year-old Frenchman is going to get sore shoulders trying to stop the 6ft 4in, 17st-plus, in-form, Jamie Roberts.
George North will start his first game for Wales at outside centre and while he gives away a few pounds to his opposite number, Mathieu Bastareaud, there’s no doubt that for a novice in that position, North will welcome Bastareaud physically if he runs straight lines.
Fofana holds the key to this one. If he can manoeuvre into North’s defensive channel he could exploit the Welshman’s inexperience while in defence Fofana’s going to need some help.