Wales Could Expose France's Fragile Halves

James MortimerAnalyst IFebruary 26, 2009

HEAD TO HEAD: Wales 43 France 39 Draw 3 @ Stade de France: Wales 3 France 2
Largest Winning margin France: France 51 Wales 0, 5th April 1998
Largest Winning margin Wales: Wales 47 Wales 5, 23rd February 1909
Last match: Wales 29 France 12 @ Millennium Stadium, Cardiff 15th March 2008

Touted by many to be the deciding championship match prior to the tournament, only one of the sides has held their end up in this regard.

Les Bleus were supposed to be a team full of menace this year.

Coach Marc Lievremont has run his potent operation with the flow of a team in transition. It was promised that the old guard pragmatism of Bernard Laporte would be dramatically altered.

There were glimpses, especially in the early stages; that the pledge would hold true. The traditional running destruction of France looked sharp in 2008 against Scotland and Ireland, but never truly implemented itself.

A loss to England and Wales, heavy defeats to the Wallabies midyear, and then a rough victory over Argentina was finished with a rematch against Australia they should have won.

Cemented by the outstanding Toulouse back divisions, the attacking aptitude could not be doubted. And with a prominent front row, capable locks and terrific loose forwards, this was a team that deserved their mantle of being the challenger to Wales’s crown in 2009.

We see a changed team, with the overwhelming Achilles heel of France evident for all to see. Benoit Baby, typically a centre, becomes the latest in the merry go round of Les Bleus first fives.

His combination with Morgan Parra—who replaces Sebastien Tilous-Borde at scrumhalf—will see yet another massively underdone halves combination. It will also see Les Bleus enter Stade de France without a recognised goal kicker.

Question marks will again abound regarding Lievremont’s selections, for he has a fully fit and in form Fly half in Toulouse’s David Skrela available.

Outside of this, the team features five changes from the team that defeated Scotland 22-13. Prop Sylvain Marconnet is recalled to with his 72nd test cap, as is the caveman, Sale strongman Sebastien Chabel.

The backline three quarter line features but one other change, the introduction of the vastly impressive Mathieu Bastareaud, who has been in damaging form for Stade Francais.

Meanwhile it is a settled and mighty looking Red Dragons team that arrives in Paris, looking to match a tournament record nine consecutive Six Nations victories.

There is much too like about the way Wales goes about their business, both on and off the field.

They play with a polished offensive sparkle, and have learnt an almost Waikato style rush defence with impressive effect. Their forwards, often forgotten in reference to their twinkle toed back line friends, were most imposing in the manner they shut down the English in their last outing.

Off the field, they talk a hard game, highly critical of any analysed flaws in their game. It is indicative of the culture being created by Warren Gatland that despite continued success, they still review their matches as harshly as if it was a loss.

Shane Williams, the 2008 IRB world player of the year comes back into the team, as was expected. The Scorer of 45 test tries is the only change to the team from their match against England.

Gavin Henson returns to the team, but must settle for a place on the bench, unable to break the high performing all Cardiff Blues centre combination of Tom Shanklin and Jamie Roberts.

It speaks volume of the Welsh depth when players of the quality of Henson, Dwayne Peel, and James Hook must cool their heels on the cold teak of Stade de Frances bench.

The Welsh players come into the match with another added advantage, of not having the bulk of their players play rugby since their last Six Nations match. Meanwhile the French players are coming off a round of Top 14, which may not work in their favour.

For the purist’s sake, I hope France to lift on their prized turf, but I think that it will take more than a imbalanced Les Bleus to stop the momentum of this seemingly all conquering Welsh side.

Wales by 12.

France:15 Maxime Medard (Toulouse), 14 Julien Malzieu (Clermont-Auvergne), 13 Mathieu Bastareaud (Stade Francais), 12 Yannick Jauzion, 11 Cedric Heymans (both Toulouse), 10 Benoit Baby (Clermont-Auvergne), 9 Morgan Parra (Bourgoin), 8 Imanol Harinordoquy (Biarritz), 7 Fulgence Ouedraogo (Montpellier), 6 Thierry Dusautoir (Toulouse), 5 Sebastien Chabal (Sale), 4 Lionel Nallet (Castres, capt), 3 Sylvain Marconnet, 2 Dimitri Szarzewski (both Stade Francais), 1 Fabien Barcella (Biarritz).

Replacements:16 Benjamin Kayser (Leicester), 17 Thomas Domingo (Clermont-Auvergne), 18 Romain Millo-Chluski (Toulouse), 19 Louis Picamoles (Montpellier), 20 Sebastien Tillous-Borde (Castres), 21 Francois Trinh-Duc (Montpellier), 22 Clement Poitrenaud (Toulouse).

Date: Friday, February 27 Kick-off: 21:00 (20:00 GMT) Venue: Stade de France Referee: Mark Lawrence (South Africa) Touch judges: Alain Rolland (Ireland), Simon McDowell (Ireland) Television match official: Peter Fitzgibbon (Ireland)