Wales take calculated risk against France in final Six Nations match
Warren Gatland’s side will look to counter Mathieu Bastareaud onslaught
France midfielder Mathieu Bastareaud takes part in a training session in Marcoussis as part of the team’s preparation for Saturday’s Six Nations match against Wales in Cardiff. Photograph: Alain Jocard/AFP/Getty Images
Points make prize money in the Six Nations. The title may have gone west but the cost to the Welsh Rugby Union of defeat against France in the final match of the Six Nations could be £2 million, the difference between coming second and fifth.
It may explain a contradictory selection by Wales who, alongside Scotland, have expanded their portfolio this season to become one of the more adventurous sides in the tournament. The choice of two open-sides in the backrow is not complemented at outhalf or fullback, where conservative selections have been made.
The Wales coach, Warren Gatland, has laced abandon with pragmatism against a France side that continues to rely overwhelmingly on power and straight-line running. Wales have dealt with that comfortably this decade – they are seeking a fourth successive home victory in the championship against Les Bleus – but the lack of a ball-carrying presence that limited their possession against Ireland in Dublin demands outlets behind to put their forwards in opposition territory.
Risk for Wales will be calculated, waiting not only for the moment but the final quarter, when France’s relative lack of fitness has caught up with them in recent years. It very nearly did against England last weekend, when a game they had appeared in control of almost slipped away, and on the opening weekend they succumbed to Ireland in the final play of the game.
Wales will look to absorb the blows before countering. They had won five in a row against France since losing the 2011 World Cup semi-final to them by a point after playing for the final hour with 14 men when they went to Paris on the final weekend last year. Leading when the countdown clock reached zero, they succumbed 20 minutes later when a series of scrums, penalties, resets, a suspicious replacement and a yellow card culminated in the home side rumbling over for the match-winning try.
The turmoil France have been in since then is illustrated in their team. The secondrow Sébastien Vahaamahina is the only starting survivor from a year ago, and only one of the bench that night will start, the outhalf François Trinh-Duc, one of two players in the side who were part of the team that last won in Cardiff in 2010.
The other is Mathieu Bastareaud who, after missing the first two matches of the tournament because he was serving a ban for making a homophobic remark, captains from the centre, with Guilhem Guirado injured. The burly midfielder was the catalyst for France’s victory in Cardiff eight years ago, knocking over defenders of the stature of Jamie Roberts, but France’s next big thing deflated after being stereotyped on the field and errant off it.
Wales have talked this week about stopping Bastareaud before he gets his legs pumping, but his most telling contribution against England last weekend was in defence where his power in the tackle coupled with his ability to quickly get back on his feet to contest for the ball won his side turnovers and penalties.
France have the meanest defence in this year’s championship, but no one has scored fewer tries.
“We will miss Guirado, but Bastareaud brings something special, as he showed against England when he was exceptional,” the former France flanker Serge Betsen said. Their head coach, Jacques Brunel, describes his new leader as a “quiet force” who carries weight with or without the ball.
Betsen credits Brunel with restoring confidence to the side after taking over from the sacked Guy Novès at the end of last year, but defeat to Wales would see them finish in the bottom half of the table after finishing third last year, their best position since 2011. They lack endurance, tending to fade after an hour, but they now have a unity of purpose.
Wales have, with Scotland, been the entertainers this tournament and with only a small swing to them at Twickenham and in Dublin, would be going for the grand slam. Their captain, Alun Wyn Jones, who has signed a new dual contract that will keep him at Ospreys, was asked on Friday about Eddie Jones’s remark that he lived in a “shit little country”.
“He talks a lot,” said Jones the player. “Whatever he said about Wales, it’s my country. It’s probably a poor choice of words on his part.” The barb will no doubt be rewired before England’s match in Cardiff next year, but pipping them to the runners-up spot would say far more. – Guardian