Lievremont mindful of emotional Welsh
Published 26/02/2010 | 05:00
Two out of three ain't bad, but three out of three would be so much better.
France have never won three games in a row under coach Marc Lievremont -- a ludicrous situation given the talent at his disposal -- and that sharp, unambiguous statistic hangs over his team like a guillotine at the Millennium Stadium tonight.
A pumped-up Welsh side, who owe their public a proper 80-minute performance after a fitful season, lie in wait and if France were to fail you fancy much of the excellent groundwork put in by Lievremont over the last 12 months would be quickly dissipated.
Win and France would be well on the way, not just in this Six Nations but in their preparations for next year's World Cup. Lievremont knows all this, hence the arrival of sports psychologists at France's training camp in Marcoussis this week to try and tweak France's approach, a very public acknowledgement that a mental hurdle needs to be cleared as well as a physical challenge met.
France have hitherto spurned the use of sports psychologists -- you tamper with the Gallic psyche and ego at your peril -- and you wonder if they are not slightly over-dramatising matters here. Off the back of an extremely professional away win in Scotland and a convincing 33-10 win over Grand Slam champions Ireland, they should be full of momentum and confidence.
France have been disciplined, organised, predatory and nigh on unflappable. They have also, for the first time, come to an agreement with the clubs and enjoyed another full week together free of domestic commitments ahead of this game. Yet suddenly you sense they are on the back foot and are feeling concerned.
"I would say we don't have the right to fail knowing all we did in the two first games, and knowing the quality of our preparation," Lievremont said. "But we have a lot of respect for this Wales team, for the quality of its rugby. I think we look like each other."
Getting into the minds of the Welsh, who share equal billing with France as the world's most mercurial players, would be another major challenge. Outplayed for well over an hour against Scotland, they suddenly, in extremis, hit the green button and started to play sublime rugby. Magical, but completely baffling for those in the stands.
Andy Powell's golf-cart episode aside, the Scotland game has had a curiously sobering effect on Wales, when you might have expected a euphoric afterglow.
There has been a swift realisation that in many areas -- notably the back row -- they were taken to the cleaners by Scotland. Wales prevailed in a game they had no right to win. They have played their 'get out of jail free' card for the season.
You know things must have been bad when there was serious talk of dropping Martyn Williams, the great openside flanker. Such heresy was justified, although he has ultimately avoided the chop.
Powell would have been dropped for Jonathan Thomas, however, regardless of his post-match antics, because Wales need to counter the line-out threat of Imanol Harinordoquy at the back, an area further strengthened for Fance by the introduction of the athletic Julien Bonnaire, who will be winning his 50th cap, at No 8.
Williams, who will be winning his 49th cap, admitted: "I was poor against Scotland -- I wasn't happy with my first-half performance. I know it is not through any lack of effort. You give everything, but some days things just don't come off for you.
"Warren (Gatland, the Wales head coach) spoke to us and said he didn't believe it went well for us as a unit. We've looked at it, analysed it and we want to put it right.
"We need to up the ante. We've taken it on board, and we need to try and answer the criticism. France have shown how dangerous they can be if you give them momentum. That's the key -- how we defend -- and hopefully a lot better than we did against Scotland."
Lievremont spoke yesterday of the "hell" that the Millennium Stadium can become for opponents. But amid the madness many thoughts will turn to young Wales lock Bradley Davies who has opted to play despite the recent, sudden, death of his mother Cheryl.
Wales will wear black armbands to show their respect and captain Ryan Jones has promised that the team will "try and do something special" for Davies and his family.
A raucous, emotional, tumultuous and possibly tearful Six Nations evening awaits in Cardiff. And they said that Friday-night rugby would never catch on. (© Daily Telegraph, London)
Wales -- L Byrne; L Halfpenny, J Hook, J Roberts, S Williams; S Jones, R Rees; P James, H Bennett, A Jones, B Davies, D Jones, J Thomas, M Williams, R Jones (capt). Replacements: K Owens, R Gill, L Charteris, S Warburton, M Phillips, A Bishop, T Shanklin.
France -- C Poitrenaud; J Malzieu, M Bastareaud, Y Jauzion, A Palisson; F Trinh-Duc, M Parra; T Domingo, W Servat, N Mas, L Nallet, J Pierre, T Dusautoir (capt), J Bonnaire, I Harinordoquy. Replacements: D Szarzewski, J-B Poux, S Chabal, A Lapandry, F Michalak, D Marty, M Andreu.
Ref -- J Kaplan (South Africa).
Wales v France
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