Archive for the ‘six nations’ Category

South Africa’s strength in depth is frightening.

Juan de Jongh scores on debut

In yesterday’s game in Cardiff, 5 of the South African 22 made their test debuts. This was for sure an understrength South African team when you consider the names missing; Habana, Morne Steyn, Du Preez, Brussouw to name but a few. And yet against a near full strength Wales team, minus the mercurial Shane Williams but still near enough to their best side, they managed to pull out a win. Their squad included players who haven’t played for the Boks for a fair amount of time, those playing in Europe like BJ Botha, Francois Steyn, and Joe Van Niekerk. The fact that the Boks can call upon players of such high calibre is incredible; no other nation has such a good pool of players to pick from, and how it showed in Cardiff.

A special mention goes to the inside centre, Juan de Jongh. The 20 year old has had quite an incredible debut season, breaking into the Stormers side, scoring his first Super rugby try in the semi-final (if you haven’t seen it, it’s one of the tries of the season), and now has a test debut and first try to his name. Expect him to be well in contention with Wynand Olivier and Jean de Villiers for the number 12 shirt come the World Cup.

Hero Mike Catt a true rugby legend.

The title above will no doubt be scoffed at by some, but if legendary status is measured by success then here are Mike Catt’s credentials; one World Cup medal, two finals, four in total. Numerous Heineken Cup and Premiership titles. The 2006 Guinness Premiership Player of the Year. 75 Caps for England, including captaining his adopted country, plus appearances for the British & Irish Lions. There were Grand Slams too, in fact his versatility in an England shirt saw him play in nearly ever position in the backs apart from at scrum half.

With Jonny Wilkinson after winning the World Cup.

It was not all glory for Catty though. Steve Borthwick might sometimes think he’s got it bad with the criticism he receives as England captain but compared to Catty he’s no idea. The image of him being trampled by a young Jonah Lomu in the 1995 World Cup is part of rugby’s history. He was constantly booed by the Twickenham crowd through the 90s. Place kicking was never his strong point and the crowd sure as hell let him know it when he messed up. Even after the glory of the World Cup in 2003, he was left out in the cold by Bath after 10 years of loyal service. But at 32, luckily for both him and myself, another glorious chapter was still to come.

Winning the Heineken Cup in 1998 against Brive with Mark Regan (l) and Ieuan Evans (c).

His move to London Irish was something that the club had not really experienced before. It was a huge capture. At 32 he may have seemed to some to be well past his prime. But what he did to the Irish team, along with the new Director of Rugby Brian Smith on his arrival a few years later, was take a side who were for want of a better word “dull” and make them a fantastic attacking threat. The move seemed to not just rejuvenate a struggling club but also Catty himself. Whether on the pitch or through advice off it as he slowly eased into his role of coach, his presence was felt all over the club. With Catty leading the rest seemed to follow. Who would have thought he would make another World Cup at the age of 35? And not only that, but get to the final? Catt’s time at Irish may not have ended with more medals, but it is what he brought to the club in terms of attitude, hunger and philosophy that he will be best remembered for.

Scoring against Quins in the Premiership semi-final last year.

And yet after all this success, there was still one brilliant moment. For all his achievements, last year’s semi-final victory over Harlequins is my personal favourite. With Andy Gomersall keen to get Quins going from inside the 22, he flung out a pass to the right, and Catty sprung. The look of pure joy on his face as he looked at myself and the rest of the Irish fans in the South Stand only metres away, was awesome. For Catty as a player, this was his swansong, his last moment of glory. It was a marvellous chapter to what is an excellent story. One of a young lad from Port Elizabeth coming to England with what many former team mates have described as an atrocious dress sense, to a man who earned the respect of the whole rugby community. The fact he has played in 17 professional seasons is just incredible. He is still fit as fiddle, apparently still beating even some of the academy boys in bleep tests in training. A real athlete with a beautiful kick, incredible hands and back in the day a fair bit of pace! But the thing that sets Catty apart has always been his vision, and his passion. Where others might see nothing, he always found a gap. Where others might have given up, he never did. It is these talents, these exceptional qualities in Rugby, that will hopefully see him become an excellent coach.

Thank you for everything Mike. You will always be one of my rugby heroes.

Look here from 4:31:

France are Champions as they overcome their malédiction anglaise.

There is something about playing England in the Stade de France that really seems to get under the French team’s skin. There are still fresh memories that haunt them from the 2003 and 2007 World Cup semi-finals defeat, and the losses in the last 3 Six Nations matches. It seemed that these may have been lingering on the mind as England came at the in the opening minutes. France never really fired but then again they didn’t really have to, Ben Foden’s early salvo aside.

France celebrate their Grand Slam after a nervous performance in Paris

On Friday afternoon I watch the Bulls show an impressive level of control in holding onto possession and ticking down the clock whilst leading 19-18 against the Highlanders in Pretoria. Phase after phase was controlled, pre-meditated but completely unstoppable. Their recycling was clean and smooth and there was an eerie sense of calm as the whole crowd and all those watching knew the Highlanders would never get the ball back. Was it dull to watch? Yes in the sense of the lack of adventure, but no because you knew you were watching a team of champions do what they had to in order to win. It was this control which saw France keep England out in the final 6 minutes of the game on Saturday night, phase after phase of forwards crashing up and recycling, over and over. In the end it was enough to grind the clock down to a halt, and win the grand slam.

Foden scores England´s try, their best moment in this year´s tournament

As for England, there was definite improvement but it would be a mistake to say that now everything was perfect. The new personnel were huge in terms of impact; Foden is a gem at full back with his constant desire to run the ball back. Flood did what Wilkinson has failed to do in getting England moving off the game line. And then there was Tindall. His return proved to be crucial, as much for when he had the ball and was crashing up into France’s defence, as when he didn’t have it. He posed such a threat that France’s defenders were caught into two minds whether to go for him or not, making him the perfect dummy runner. For evidence of this look at England’s first try. Hartley’s burst into the French pushed them back but the key was the quick ball which came from it. A miss pass from Flood with Tindall running up as the dummy rooted France to the ground, before deft, flick passes from the Flutey and the debutant Ashton sent Foden over sprinting in the corner. How many times have we seen England try something similar but with bad handling or mis-timed runs? The try was proof that when it clicks it works. And more importantly that England can make it work.

As for the wrongs, the lineout disintegrated at times and Bryce Lawrence’s interpretation of the scrums and breakdowns didn’t help England’s cause. Dan Cole really struggled and it was the penalties he conceded at scrum time which helped Parra extend France’s lead. The lack of clinical finishing is the other thing which really let them down because France were wobbling and seemed there for the taking. All the exuberance of their play had been blunted, and Imanol Harinordoquy admitted afterwards that they had perhaps been a bit afraid. England should have capitalised, and they did come close. Chris Ashton had a couple of kick chases but maybe he should have not kicked ahead in the first place. England were still plagued at times by the handling errors that we have come all too used to seeing week in week out.

Simon Shaw had a great impact but is not getting any younger

So what now? Well, the glimpses of progress from Saturday have to be taken forward. Flood must be given more games to grow into the number 10 position, but Jonny must also be retained in the 22 for the excellent impact he had when he came on. Foden, Ashton and Tindall too must also stay. The same goes for Danny Care, who has improved this tournament despite some ups and downs. In the forwards, Dan Cole has proved overall to be a good find at tight-head prop, while Lewis Moody led excellently as stand-in captain for the injured Borthwick. My main concern is that Simon Shaw and Mike Tindall are not getting any younger. New players of similar stature and ability need to come through sooner rather than later to be able provide the grunt and thrust of Shaw and the game line breaking ability of Tindall. But where are these new young replacements? Courtney Lawes looked to set to be the new Shaw but his star has not been given the chance to shine. And as for a replacement for Tindall, there is no one really there putting their hand up.

England now have three months before their next test against Australia in June. These three months of Guinness Premiership and Heineken Cup rugby will hopefully see more players putting their hands up for selection. As Dave Ellis, the France and London Irish defence coach stated afterwards; “England have to bite the bullet, throw new players in, they have nothing to lose.” Let us hope that in the road towards next year’s World Cup, Saturday was a start and not just a one-off.

Six Nations Week 5- France v England

All eyes on Saturday evening will turn to Paris for the clash between England and France. For France there is a championship and possibly a grand slam to be won. For England, after a tournament of dismal performances, there is the hope of regaining a sense purpose in their evolution as a side, and also the opportunity to blood some new players in the hope that they might spark what has been a rusty, stuttering mechanical team into life.

Player of the Tournament candidate Mathieu Bastareaud

France’s tournament success this year is reflected in the way that 4 of their players are nominated for the Player of the Tournament award. Extreme hunger in the forwards for the ball at the breakdown has been balanced with a great intensity at hitting the rucks and getting the backs quick ball. Lionel Nallet the former captain has been a force of nature sans the armband and it shows at how he’s been getting stuck in. Along with the growing force of Thomas Domingo at loosehead prop, who at 24 has a long way to go in rugby years, and an exceptional back row of Thierry Dusautoir and Imanol Harinordoquy. Dusautoir as France’s captain will be even more hungry for victory knowing that a Grand Slam awaits.

In the backs, I have spoken before of the sheer arrogance and brilliance of Morgan Parra. He will only get better as he continues to play, with his sniping runs and excellent place kicking making him core to France’s long-term plans. Outside him, you could argue that Mathieu Bastareaud has been the star of the tournament. With such good ball from the pack and Parra’s direction, Bastareaud and full back Clement Poitrenaud have been able to run all kinds of lines and consequentially cause all kind of mayhem. Bastareaud’s rampaging runs and strength have been a highlight of this year’s tournament. France after all that sound quite impressive, non?

Mike Tindall returns to the side after 4 months out injured.

England’s creativity in selection therefore comes as a bit of a surprise. I’m not saying this to complain, because after criticising the lack of imagination in selection the week before that would be plain hypocrisy, but now England’s backline has changed and it looks good. Toby Flood, Mike Tindall, Chris Ashton and Ben Foden all come into the backs. Tindall is not exactly similar in stature to Mathew Tait but hopefully will provide more penetration in the middle, which can get England rolling. His selection given that France have Bastareaud in the 13 shirt opposite is no real surprise. With Ashton and Foden, England have two incredibly exciting players who love to run and score tries. If suddenly we see them kicking everything away on Saturday night then let that be an indication that something is wrong with the coaching in the England set-up. If England can get them to run, then they have a chance.

Ashton (l) and Foden (r) make their first starts for England this weekend

That will require the pack however to provide the backs with good enough ball, something which we haven’t really seen this tournament. The back row shows good balance, and Simon Shaw’s return gives England much more grunt, but they have to compete at the breakdown and get clean quick ball if Danny Care is going to be able to start anything out wide. They will have to work hard, and none of Worsley, Moody or Easter are exactly fresh-faced debutants. The re-selection of Moody begs to ask the question, why was he dropped for one game against Scotland? Johnson goes on about continuity, and then does that. Bizarre.

Anyway, for a prediction, England’s ambitious selection in the backs may in fact cost them due to a lack of familiarity. The midfield is the same as the one that created the 34-10 battering of France at Twickenham, but that was 12 months ago, and a lot of has changed. France look too good on paper, so the French by ten points.

England frustrate as France loom ahead

How much longer can it go on? Once Foden, Flood, Youngs, Lawes and Moody were on the pitch England looked like the could pose a threat. A mild one mind, but more than they had shown in the first half against a spirited Scottish team. Toby Flood got England moving in the backs, Ben Foden’s darting runs from full back (for the best example see him smashing Al Kellock to the ground in all it’s slow-motion gumshield flying glory) gave them the pace which had been absent, Riki Flutey suddenly appeared to make things happen at inside centre, and Mathew Tait even had a run. Which means that Jonny is not doing what Flood is doing. It’s not his fault, that’s just how he plays. But when he’s getting such drivel from the pack…

Ben Foden smashes into Al Kellock

Joe Worsley did what we expected at 7 and fair play to him his work rate was good, but as for Deacon, Borthwick and Easter, they might as well have been human statues. I appreciate that having a good scrum and lineout is completely essential in order to create substantial possession, but if England don’t have the runners to crash over the game line, or recycle quick ball, then what is the point in winning it in the first place? Scotland in Graeme Morrison at 12, and their outstanding back row, who the media have dubbed “the Killers Bs”, did it over and over again. They got Scotland over, which gave Cusiter quick ball and gave Dan Parks, who was outstanding, time to attack. Whilst they didn’t score any tries, they always looked like they were working towards something. England now have one game left against France, and it looks ominous.

My Team for next week would be: 15. Foden, 14. Ashton, 13. Tait, 12. Flutey, 11. Cueto, 10. Flood, 9. Care, 8. Worsley, 7. S Armitage, 6. Moody, 5. Borthwick (reluctantly), 4. Lawes, 3. Cole, 2. Hartley, 1. Mullan.

Some fresh faces, but also experience. The team needs shaking up, or Johnson will be asked a lot of questions about his capability for the job.

As for the match at Croke Park, Ireland looked superb against Wales, with Gatland’s side paying the price for indiscipline again for the second time this season with Lee Byrne’s idiocy. Tomas O’Leary and Keith Earls both were excellent and scored good tries, but it was David Wallace who really stood out. After a poor game in Paris in Week 2, here was the Lion David Wallace, turning over at rucks, strong running in the loose, an all round general confirmation that he is not past his best yet. Declan Kidney’s side will now look ahead to the Triple Crown as they face Scotland in what will be the last game at Croke Park after four very successful years. It has been an excellent stadium. A couple of pluses for the Welsh include that Jamie Roberts seemed to find his form again, and also that Gethin Jenkins, Mike Phillips and Ryan Jones are fit again for selection this weekend. But it has been a frustrating tournament for all those in Red. Some great comebacks, but overall poor results.

Morgan Parra has been outstanding

Meanwhile, France’s Morgan Parra looks set to be named Player of the Tournament after a series of impressive displays, including orchestrating the 46-20 thrashing of Italy. The scrum half and kicker plays with such confidence and a touch of arrogance, but then so have all the best number 9s. His vision and sharp acceleration make him elusive, his distribution and goal-kicking a match winner. And he is still young. What an exciting player.

Six Nations Week 4- Predictions

Starting with England v Scotland, it has been the same old talk this week from the England camp about time to deliver in the backs. The way they talk about unleashing all this potential you wonder if the team worry they’ll be too good for anyone in the world when the time comes, and just don’t want to make the sport unfair…. ok maybe not.

Parks will call the shots for Scotland from 10

This Calcutta Cup match may prove to be entertaining as a result of tension and a narrow scoreline, but it will not be for vast amounts of tries and wild attacking play. England’s attack has been blunt all tournament and Scotland can play but are similar to England in their choice of a pragmatic, conservative fly half in Dan Parks. If Wilkinson and Parks give it a go, their backlines offer thrilling pace, Ugo Monye, Simon Danielli, Mark Cueto, Delon Armitage and Max Evans to name but a few. I hope for the sake of the match that this might happen, but I’m not betting on it. You’re more likely to find yourself watching a drop goal tutorial.

The selection of De Luca at centre by Scotland is to add a bit of bulk to the midfield against a slightly lightweight English one; Riki Flutey and Mathew Tait don’t exactly shape up like Ma’a Nonu. If Scotland can burst through the centre with their excellent back row unit of the 3 Bs (Brown, Barclay and Beattie) in pursuit, England could be in trouble. Joe Worsley, the somewhat obvious but incredibly dull selection at 7, has been brought in to stop this from happening. Or stop Scotland from playing, much like he did against Wales last year, depending on how cynical you are on him being picked. It will not be an easy task, but with only 5 English turnovers all tournament, why bother to start trying now? This one is a hard one to call but I will go with an English win, most likely a Wilkinson drop goal for the winner. Or one from Parks. Or a Penalty. You get the idea.

100 Caps for a rugby legend. All Hail O'Driscoll!

Ireland against Wales by stark contast is like the beautiful sister next to the Calcutta Cup match’s ugly one. Both sides are packed full of adventurous attacking runners, the wing of Shane Williams against Tommy Bowe is set to be a superb spectacle. Both top class finishers in excellent form, look no further than Bowe’s brace against England or Shane’s mesmerising run against France. In fact for entertainment value, Ireland against Wales is rarely a bad game to watch, last year’s Grand Slam decider in Cardiff being a great example. But this time it is extra special; All Hail O’Driscoll. The Ireland captain will win his 100th cap tomorrow at Croke Park, in what has been an exceptional career. Best Northern Hemisphere player of the last decade? More like one of the best ever. Martyn Williams, the Welsh captain for the game on Saturday, summed it up best this week when he said:

“I think the word legend is thrown around a lot, but he is the epitome of the word.”

I won’t go into why Brian is held in such high regard, because everybody knows why and has seen what he’s done. Congratulations to him.

As for the game itself, Wales are missing so many first choice picks in the scrum that a possible strength against Ireland has disappeared. Ireland will be physical, they will use their rush defence to force turnovers from which they are so lethal. Wales are not bad on the break either though, they have all their first choice backs however, and the skills and power of all their runners, Roberts, Hook, Shane, Halfpenny and Byrne, should never ever be ignored. But you just get the feeling that Brian’s party won’t be spoiled, and that Ireland will win in what will be the best game of the weekend.

Marc Andreu, the latest French wing to come in through the revolving selection door

As for Sunday’s match, predicting a cricket score would not be unreasonable, even if Italy did beat Scotland in the last round of matches. France seem to play a new winger every week, this time round it is Marc Andreu of Castres who is selected. Who? My thoughts as well. If the French are as rampant as they were against Ireland in Paris, imagine what it will be like against Italy. So a France by a cricket score it is.

Johnson keeps it safe… again

Martin Johnson has kept his side rather conservative

Tuesday’s team announcement sprung a surprise in the dropping of Lewis Moody but more to the point left me with a feeling of frustration. The selections of Louis Deacon and Joe Worsley are logical, Deacon played well against Ireland after coming on following Simon Shaw’s injury and Johnson and his coaching team clearly feel that against what looks a very impressive Scottish back row unit, Worsley will provide the big hits and defensive dedication that you might not get from the all-action Moody.

But the fact is behind Deacon and Worsley are young players who are playing better in their positions. Deacon gives you hard graft at a consistent level, he has grown as a force this season in the Leicester pack. But, will he ever have the ability to be a world class lock? With Courtney Lawes, England have a force that they’ve not quite seen before in that position in terms of raw athleticism. The Saints lock come blindside flanker should be being developed with a view towards the World Cup next year. If Shaw and Borthwick are Johnson’s first choice, he should be the number one back up, to gain experience off the bench when they are playing and so that should one of them drop out he is next in line.

Steffon Armitage has not even made the 22

With Worsley it is the same, has Johnson not seen Steffon Armitage play the last few weeks? He has been superb in a underfiring London Irish side, with 3 tries in his last 3 games. If Moody, England’s star in the Autumn is not good enough then Worsley, who is only a few games back from injury, most certainly is not, not in comparison to the way Armitage is playing anyway. Imagine the edge England’s play at the ruck would have with the dynamism and physical forces of Lawes and Armitage crashing in. England’s amount of turnover ball, just 1 against Ireland, would increase dramatically. Also, the ball would come to Danny Care faster, meaning Wilkinson gets it with more time to create something. Unfortunately imagining is as close as that seems right now.

The other selection notes are on the wing and full back. Chris Ashton’s 12 tries in 14 games this season don’t seem to be enough to get him past Mark Cueto, who has not scored a try for England now in 9 games. At full back Delon Armitage’s excellence from last season has disappeared, and as good as he is, the fact that he has been kept instead of Ben Foden is another surprise given his lack of form. Johnson’s faith in his players is admirable but Delon is now on his last chance. Foden showed when he came off the bench that he is not afraid to give it a go.

Ben Youngs could make his first start for England off the bench

The single note of boldness in his selection is that of Ben Youngs on the bench. It is tough on Paul Hodgson who Johnson described as having been “fantastic on and off the field in every way”, but Youngs, who looks the complete package with the addition of blistering pace, like Lawes and Steffon is the future. There are only so many games left until the 2011 World Cup, and if guys like these have not had a chance to be blooded and gain experience, then how will they be of any use down in New Zealand? England cannot go on with the old guard forever. Soon something will have to give.

Ireland edge out struggling England

Ireland came back with only 6 minutes left against England at Twickenham to win through Tommy Bowe´s second try, and the consequences of the late score could prove very influential for both sides.

Starting with Ireland, two losses would have been not only a knock for Ireland´s confidence but their reputation. Coming to Twickenham and winning will have restored their belief in themselves after the hammering from France in Paris. For Johnny Sexton the young fly half, it was a mixed day but one which will help him grow as a player; four missed kicks at goal, but clever tactical kicking and a wonderful grubber kick behind the England defence for Tommy Bowe´s first try means he came out on top.

Tommy Bowe touches down for Ireland´s first try

Ireland´s scrum held up but only just, it has been their burden now for years, with John Hayes dragged off before he was sent off on his 100th cap, but if you don´t have the personnel what can you do? Cian Healy aside, Ireland don´t have excellent young props coming through like say England do with Dan Cole and Matt Mullan.

In the lineout the Irish were strong but England whilst dyer at times, generally did very well despite the loss of Simon Shaw early on. The stats of 16 English lineouts won to 3 lost illustrates this. Ireland are also blessed with an excellent back row which is good enough to rival any in the world. Stephen Ferris at 6 with his pace and work rate looks set to be one of the top flankers for a long time, as is Jamie Heaslip at number 8. Their youthful exuberance seems to be keeping the openside David Wallace going, and the amount of turnover ball for Ireland on Saturday showed how hard they all worked for the ball, Ireland´s 8 turnovers to England´s 1. Add to the dynamic back row two strong centres, in D´Arcy, who is in fine form this season, and captain O´Driscoll, plus the world-class Tommy Bowe and Ireland have a fine team. In fact, it is that last element of a world-class finisher which England so greatly crave.

Which brings us to Martin Johnson´s team. After weeks of dire kicking, England seemed to go pass crazy, the official number being 140 passes made to Ireland´s 58. That is a lot of possession. But it got them at times absolutely nowhere. For all their back play, the only try came from when Dan Cole burrowed over. The change of tactics was welcome but too extreme, it is not about all out kicking or all out running, but combining them together and achieving a balance.

And the problem is obvious but no one wants to talk about it because it is seen as sacrilege. But the problem is Jonny. Low on confidence, but full of bravery, England are just not getting going in the backs. Riki Flutey has been unable to bail him out, and perhaps now is the time for Toby Flood to be given a run. England need a ten who plays on the game line, and Jonny simply sits too deep. How are you meant to go forward from every ruck if the ball is passed 5 to 10 metres back?

Jonny Wilkinson tries to get away from Jamie Heaslip

Elsewhere, Haskell, Moody and Easter were simply outmuscled at the breakdown and that will hurt. They are all good players, but they never looked like they were able to steal Ireland´s ball at the rucks let alone at times secure their own. It was a day when someone like Steffon Armitage, who put in an excellent performance for London Irish against Harelquins on Sunday, would have excelled, but instead for some reason Joe Worsley was selected on the bench, coming on to little effect.

Players in the backs like Monye and Cueto and Delon Armitage still look blunt and ineffective, with Ben Foden providing some spark when he come on off the bench, and whilst not hugely effective, he put his hand up for selection against Scotland in a fortnight´s time. If Flood comes in the likes of Foden and Mathew Tait will simply have more of a chance to attack.

Lastly, England´s defence at key points on Saturday let them down. Leading up to the first try, Jamie Heaslip seemed to be given all the time in the world to gallop 20m into England´s half before passing to Sexton who put through Tommy Bowe. It meant Armitage was sucked across creating the space behind, and Lewis Moody, for all his effort, was never going to catch the Irish winger. The last try as well looked oddly easy, quick ball off the top of the lineout and a simple line from Bowe between Care and Wilkinson and Ireland were over.

Some will say it was a cruel loss for England, but it should be seen as a blessing. Flaws have been exposed, and now it is up to Johnson to recognise them and make the changes, if England are to progress looking towards the next World Cup.

No déjà vu for brave Wales as France march on

This one proved to be one comeback too many for Wales after the heroics against Scotland a fortnight ago.

Shane Williams 50th try for his country at the end of Friday night’s game neatly summed up his Welsh side so far this season, capable of moments of brilliance, but also of completely losing their way. France’s tries from Alexis Palisson and Francois Trinh-Duc could be judged as fortunate but the way they took control of the game, forcing Wales to play lateral in attack and therefore creating little opportunity, was brutally effective. The Welsh were aimless and showed little penetration, and to concede two interception tries was bad luck but also careless. Wales defence coach Shaun Edwards said after that:

“To keep France to no offensive tries was a great effort. But there is no doubt people are doing their homework and have seen they can get intercepts, because more than 30% of our tries conceded over the last 18 months have come from intercepts.”

For the first one, look back to the game against England at Twickenham and the Delon Armitage interception which led to Mathew Tait’s try, and Palisson’s on Friday night. Stephen Jones and James Hook play so sideways on both occasions that by the time the pass is made, it is easier for the defender to pick off the ball. This will not have impressed Warren Gatland or Shaun Edwards, but what will have created more frustration is that Wales only really got going after France had gone up 20-0. The bravery and spirit Wales showed was fantastic in their comeback, but why can they not play like that from the start?

All of a sudden Jamie Roberts was crashing through, combining well with James Hook, who’s emergence at 13 has been a big bonus for Wales. Stephen Jones’s directness and hard work from the forwards sucked France right, before the ball came flying left, ending with a huge miss pass from Shane Williams to his other winger Leigh Halfpenny out wide who burned through. Attractive, exciting rugby, and a 13-20 scoreline.

A couple of Parra penalties killed it off as a match, but there was still time for Shane to produce a truly memorable try; out of nothing picking the ball up near the half way line, beating three men, stepping brilliantly, it was a top top try.

Shane Williams goes over for an excellent try

France now look likely champions as they face both Italy and England in Paris in the last two rounds. The intensity from the Ireland game was there, but the way Wales came back will concern Marc Lievremont the coach. However, Nallet, Dusautoir the captain and the clinical kicking machine that is Morgan Parra were all excellent and a French grand slam should be achieved comfortably come March 20th in Paris. Potentially.

Wales look to push on against impressive France

A 17 point capitulation against England at Twickenham was bizarrely flipped on its head a week later as Wales threw everything AND the kitchen sink at Scotland to complete an unbelievable 17 point comeback. It proved in both cases just how much defensive sides can suffer when down to 14 men or less if the opposition are clinical enough. Scotland’s reduction to 13 players practically gifted Wales the chance to come back and they did so emphatically.

Shane Williams goes over for the match-winning try against Scotland

The way Warren Gatland’s side played in the last 10 minutes down in Cardiff was a reminder of the threat Wales pose if they click together. Whilst Jamie Roberts’ threat has been reduced through the now regular effect of “second season syndrome” where defences know what they’re up against, James Hook at 13 has been exceptional. The Osprey fly-half, inside centre and full back has looked extremely comfortable in his new role and his running lines, especially the one which led to his try in the defeat against England, prove that he is more than capable of playing there at International level. That in mind, he will face a much sterner test in the coming weeks as first he faces one of the brightest young stars in the game, the monstrous Mathieu Bastareaud, followed by Ireland’s talismanic Brian O’Driscoll.

Hook and co apart from the last 10 minutes against Scotland however have been pretty poor. Their attacking play has at times simply seemed to be “throw the ball to Shane Williams and hope.” As remarkable a player as Shane is, he goes into tomorrow night’s game on the verge of 50 test tries for Wales, Wales have to show more variation and craft; be it through Roberts and Hook in the centre running smarter angles or better game management from Stephen Jones. France will try and play it fast and furious as they were against Ireland and the best way to combat this is to look for the space behind the on-rushing defence; expect grubbers and chip kicks from Richie Rees, making his first full start at scrum half, Jones and Hook and the full back Lee Byrne, trying to get behind France in hope that their forwards can compete at the lineout. The pack is weakened with the loss of three Lions; Gethin Jenkins, Matthew Rees and Alun Wyn-Jones, and this could be where the game is decided; Bradley Davies and Deiniol Jones in the second row have limited experience with D Jones in fact making his first start. Both have been in good form for Cardiff Blues but this is a step up. If Wales aren’t winning it up front then their backs have no chance.

Deiniol Jones (L) makes his first start for Wales on friday night

For France, everything against Ireland seemed to go right, all in an eerily perfect, almost mechanical performance. Marc Lievremont’s side on their day are simply awesome; power in the centres from Yannick Jauzion and Bastareaud and in the tight five, intense pace out wide with the unpredictable Alexis Palisson, who has recovered from Jerry Flannery’s punt at his leg, and the consistent Julien Malzieu. However, it has been from numbers 6-9 where France are really on fire. The back row of captain Thierry Dusautoir, Julien Bonnaire and a re-born Imanol Harinodoquy plus the tactical kicking and passing of Morgan Parra are making the French click. The intensity in defence and attack never dropped against Ireland, and where the Irish always looked like they were struggling to get over the game line, France did it at moments with ease. There’s no reason why it should drop for the match in Cardiff.

Mathieu Bastareaud conquered O'Driscoll a fortnight ago in Paris

The only non-playing advantage Wales have tomorrow night is the stadium itself. In my opinion the greatest rugby theatre on the planet, with the roof shut the noise is simply incredible. At the right time, say a lineout in the French 22 where William Servat can’t hear himself think let alone hit his jumper, Wales might just get a chance at some points. Every Welsh player will grow from it and if the crowd can keep it up all the way through, then it may get to the French on some level. But don’t expect a major upset.

Score: Wales 12-25 France

Here are highlights from last year’s match in Paris: