When a coach reflects so longingly on the loss of one player, it not only reminds us of what could have been but also highlights a team’s current shortcomings. Warren Gatland has always held Gavin Henson in high regard and in his latest appraisal of the 28-year-old Ospreys star, the mastermind behind the 2008 Grand Slam admitted he was desperate for the centre to return.
In the 2008 Six Nations Championship, Wales conceded a paltry two tries and Henson’s partnership with Tom Shanklin was a major contributing factor. We are only two games into the 2010 campaign yet Wales have already shipped five tries.
But Henson’s loss only paints half the picture and with a rejuvenated French side lying in wait, Gatland must quickly find his brush to fill in some obvious gaps.
Despite their breathtaking last-gasp win over Scotland a fortnight ago, Wales are obviously struggling. Their recent triumphs centred around a brand of rugby reliant on unrelenting pace and ferocious defence. Ten minutes at the Millennium Stadium aside, where have these core components gone?
If they play like they did for 70 minutes against Scotland, Wales will be blown away on Friday night. But if those thrilling last moments against the Scots can inspire the Welsh to play without fear, then France can be beaten, just.
During the last 12 months we have watched Jamie Roberts marauding through defences, off-loading in tackles and generally looking unstoppable. But whether the last year has taken its toll or it’s simply a case of teams having worked him out, his game is misfiring and Wales don’t appear to have a back-up, a Plan B.
When you look at the backline at their disposal, Wales should not be in their present predicament. The problem is, when the opposition takes away their source of possession, they get starved out wide and their gameplan is ruined.
It shows a team’s quality that with their backs against the wall they produce their best stuff, but it also draws attention to their vulnerability. Wales were almost out of the game against Andy Robinson’s side, but as Scotland tired the home side grew strength. Quick ball led to gaps, gaps led to breaks, breaks led to off-loads and these led to glimpses of the Wales of two years ago.
If France win the forward battle and starve the Welsh of ball, Wales will struggle, and with a weakened front five, the signs are not good. Gareth Williams is missing, as is Matthew Rees and the irreplaceable Gethin Jenkins. There’s also a new second-row pairing of Cardiff Blues duo Bradley Davies and Deiniol James and with a French pack arriving having destroyed Ireland up-front, Wales may be in for a tough time.
Last year France lost to both Ireland and England on the road but a win over the All Blacks in New Zealand for the first time since 1994 has given them a fresh belief and confidence, as illustrated at Murrayfield and in Paris.
Arguably, France possess the only Northern Hemisphere back row that can compete with their Southern counterparts and their back division has a raw power to bludgeon through the strongest of defences.
But for all their promise, a cloud of uncertainty stills hangs over them. To this point they have had everything their way, they led going in at half time in their previous two matches and have dictated terms throughout.
Marc Lievremont’s side appear comfortable when they are in the ascendency, when they are in command, but their humbling loss to New Zealand in Marseille in the autumn reaffirmed their capacity to capitulate.
If Wales ignite their partisan crowd and get amongst the French early to win possession and put their backs on the front foot, Gatland may get the chance to remember the past but live for the future.
By Tom Walker