Saturday’s match between France and Wales is shaping up to be the battle of the wounded beasts. The extent to which they’re wounded, however, is markedly different. France’s unexpected loss against Italy last week was like a papercut – it would have been apocalyptically painful, but the damage was only skin deep. It would have made them angry, and hungry for revenge. Wales, on the other hand, have been hit by a bus nine times in a row. They’re lying in a pool of their own blood, and somehow have to drag themselves out. Bring it on.
Reasons to back France
Ah France – predictably unpredictable, consistently inconsistent… they almost always have at least one poor game in the Six Nations. The worrying thing is that, this time around, they may have got it out of the way early doors. We know that it’s a team full of quality – their Autumn Internationals and domestic form show that – and you can guarantee they won’t be as complacent as they were against Italy. It’s such a big team, made all the more massive by the inclusion this week of super-sized centre Mathieu Bastareaud. They’ll want to bully Wales, looking to fill them with fear and doubt. In the back of all the Welsh minds will be their run of losses, and France will want to capitalise on that. They just about got the upper hand in the scrum against Italy (no mean feat) and, with Wales second best to Ireland in this area, they’ll look to squeeze an advantage there. They won’t be as lethargic at the breakdown this week, and should at least achieve parity with Wales on the floor. The key for France will be momentum; if they can get quick ball in the right part of the field, and start rolling the phases together, then they have more than enough power and guile in the backs to break a leaky Welsh defence. Wales’ kicking game against Ireland was fairly ineffective, and France will gladly accept any invitation to counter-attack.
Reasons to back Wales
They have to end their run of bad form eventually, don’t they? They possess more than enough talent to make it happen, but rugby is about so much more than that. All the right ingredients are there, they just need someone to mix them all together, bang them in the oven and turn up the heat. It’s clear that Gatland used to be the man who made that happen, but with him out of the equation, who’s going to provide that inspiration? The loss of Warburton may well be a blessing in disguise; his form since the World Cup has been patchy at best, and he’s been replaced by the in-form Tipuric, who made a significant impact when he came on against Ireland. The addition of experienced back-row Ryan Jones as captain could make a difference, too. Could make a difference. Wales have to stop France from building up a head of steam, which means aggression and absolute commitment in defence for the entire game. If they switch off for any period of the match, as they’ve been susceptible to do, they will lose. Get in the lead early, shut the Parisian crowd up, and make France chase the game. No more going for the try when the easy points are on offer, either. If every Welshman plays as well as he’s capable, with a fired-up, unified spirit, then they could pull it off. Could.
It will be as much a psychological battle as a physical one. Wales’ mental scars run far deeper, and will therefore be much tougher to overcome. It will take a full-on 80 minute performance to beat France in Paris, and I don’t think Wales have got that in them. France by five.
by Gideon Heugh