The France v Wales preview: The legend of the A-Team and Ross Moriarty’s key role,It was the writer Martin Johnson, not the World Cup-winning rugby player, who memorably declared: “When you hear thousands of people belting out ‘feed me till I want no more’ you can only be in one of two places.
Waiting for the ninth course at an American restaurant, or inside a rugby union stadium watching Wales heading for victory.”And so to the 2019 Six Nations and the massed ranks who are expecting to hear, and perhaps partake in, quite a few renditions of Guide Me, Oh Thou Great Redeemer in the coming six weeks.
For after nine successive wins for Warren Gatland’s side, expectation abounds. “It’s a Grand Slam for Wales this season,” said a chap in the shop where this writer buys his newspapers.
Three people who had entered joined in the conversation and agreed with him. They came, they saw and they concurred. Julius Caesar would have been proud of them.
One man went for Ireland to finish top of the pile. As I left with papers in hand, he was being asked to explain himself.In the dim and distant past, Wales were about as comfortable being tipped for success as a man with vertigo might be atop a tall building. Being fancied simply didn’t do it for them.Think the 1999 World Cup when a long run of victories ended with Samoa repeatedly gang-tackling Scott Quinnell in Cardiff. Plan A didn’t work that day, so Wales moved onto Plan B, which it transpired was to revert to Plan A. A 38-31 setback resulted.
A defeat to Australia a week later, and Wales were out of their own World Cup and it was never glad confident morning for Henry in Wales again.
But there is a perception that this time things are different, perhaps stemming from the way Gatland’s team delivered during the recent autumn Tests: four games played, four victories banked. They had been expected to do well and they did do well — very well.
The long run of defeats against Australia was stopped, Scotland were sent packing, Tonga crushed and South Africa downed in a physical affair. It was a campaign that gave supporters fresh reasons to believe, if any were needed.
Wales looked a side happy to live with the expectation that comes from being ranked third in the world. They even appeared to relish the extra pressure and lift their game a notch or two, almost seeming reprogrammed. A winning outlook looked the new default setting.The challenge is to maintain that approach in what could be the most competitive Six Nations of them all.
Their self-belief contrasts sharply with that of France ahead of the date in Paris this evening.
JACQUES UNDER ATTACK
Barely two months ago, Mathieu Bastareaud was telling his team-mates they were “pathetic” and “shameful” after a home defeat by Fiji.
Nor has coach Jacques Brunel exactly been tub-thumping.
“In my view the favourites for the tournament are Ireland. England and Wales are very strong but I believe France are lagging behind. We need to improve in many areas.”Poor Brunel. He took over as France coach a year ago but few are celebrating his first anniversary. A dive into French social media found a post from someone who evidently isn’t on first name terms with Jacques: “He has no charisma, no plan; he is neither a leader nor a tactical coach. He has nothing to say.” Apart from that, he’s fine. No?
Others called for France to field their women’s team against Alun Wyn Jones and his players, saying they would do a better job than the men.
One individual argued that Brunel’s team were bottom of the world. Anyone who lived through the Welsh rugby’s trials and tribulations in the 1990s, when the national team sometimes might have struggled to beat an egg, could have been forgiven the odd bracing flashback. Sometimes it goes like that for a coach. Rob Howley will understand. After Wales squeaked past Japan in 2016, courtesy of a Sam Davies drop goal in the final seconds, he commented that his side had played their get-out-of-jail card to secure the win.
On Twitter, one chap remarked: “Howley should be locked up in jail for that performance.”
Three years earlier he had overseen a Six Nations title success and perhaps the greatest Wales performance of the professional era, the one that yielded a 30-3 win over England.
But those who inhabit the unforgiving world of top-level coaching are deemed by many to be only as good as their last game. It is an aspect of the job that is said to go with the territory.Brunel has turned to bulk in an attempt to turn the tide for his team, fielding a 154st pack that is thought to be the heaviest in Test history. The average weight per player is a vol-au-vent or two shy of 19st, while the average height is 6ft 4in.
They will look to pose an industrial-scale threat to Wales and the visitors will need to front up physically. But they don’t want to over-emphasise the fight-fire-with-fire stuff.
Indeed, some might argue the last thing a team should do in front of a partisan crowd of 80,000 is play to the opposition’s strengths.
That means it wouldn’t be a bad idea to try playing at a high tempo up front and test the mobility and athleticism of the 6ft 6in, 24st 6lb Uini Atonio, the 6ft 8in, 19st 12lb Sebastien Vahaamahina and the 6ft 7in, 21st 4lb Paul Willemse.
Gatland will have noted that in the autumn that Fiji faced six of the pack France will start with tonight and managed to get the job done. They didn’t do it by allowing Les Bleus to dictate how the game would be played.
They made the most of their possession, making 16 clean breaks despite only winning 38 percent of the ball. They defended valiantly and Leone Nakarawa was extraordinary — nothing new there, then.