Wales and France eye tournament finale
October 13, 2011
Thierry Dusautoir skippers France in their World Cup semi-final © Getty Images
Thierry Dusautoir Warren Gatland James Hook Marc Lievremont Morgan Parra Rhys Priestland Jamie Roberts
Wales will be chasing a first-ever Rugby World Cup final appearance when they go head-to-head with France at Eden Park in Auckland on Saturday night.
Warren Gatland's side powered into the semi-finals with an impressive 22-10 victory over Ireland that saw them return to the final four for the first time since the inaugural World Cup in 1987 when they were sent packing by hosts New Zealand.
In contrast, France are eyeing up their third tournament finale having graced the sport's biggest stage 24 years ago and again at the 1999 tournament only to fall at the final hurdle against the All Blacks and Australia respectively. Marc Lievremont's side bounced back from two successive pool defeats to edge out England in the last eight with a revitalised performance securing a 19-12 upset win. As a reward, they will line up against Wales for the first time in the World Cup.
Gatland's men have shown an impressive level of consistency throughout their campaign during which they came mightily close to despatching South Africa before overcoming the threat of the Samoa. This was quickly followed by victories against Namibia and Fiji. Central to Wales' success is a reliance youth with the likes of Rhys Priestland - who will sit out Saturday's clash with a shoulder injury - George North and Toby Faletau all shining with 22-year-old skipper Sam Warburton showing a class far beyond his years.
France's campaign has not been so straightforward. Unconvincing performances against Japan and Canada were followed up by a thorough beating at the hands of the All Blacks that heaped woe on a squad reportedly on the brink of a player-led rebellion. But things would get worse with Tonga claiming a famous victory that was not quite enough to deny France a place in the knock out stages.
Few French players caught the eye in the pool stages but scrum-half Dimitri Yachvili - surprisingly paired with Morgan Parra at half-back - emerged as a key threat against England. But pivotal to that victory was their imperious pack with Imanol Harinordoquy and Julien Bonnaire rising to the challenge.
Wales - Player to Watch: Jamie Roberts is showing signs of being back to his immense form displayed during the 2009 British & Irish Lions tour to South Africa. Against Ireland Roberts was inspirational in the centres, nullifying Brian O'Driscoll in the process, and faced with Maxime Mermoz and Aurelien Rougerie come Saturday, Gatland will hope for more of the same.
Wales - Team News: Warren Gatland has been forced into a change from the side which beat Ireland with James Hook starting at fly-half in place of the injured Rhys Priestland. Stephen Jones comes onto the bench. Elsewhere - it's as you were, with Sam Warburton captaining the side from openside alongside Dan Lydiate and Toby Faletau with Alun Wyn-Jones partnered by Luke Charteris in the second-row. Adam Jones, Huw Bennett and Gethin Jenkins form the front-row. Mike Phillips lines up at scrum-half with Roberts and Jonathan Davies taking the centre sports. The renaissance man Leigh Halfpenny starts at fullback with Shane Williams and George North hoping to provide that scoring touch from the wing.
France - Player to Watch: Morgan Parra will get used playing against James Hook soon enough with Hook opting to switch to the Top 14, but come Saturday, Parra will have to be on top of his game against an efficient Welsh outfit. His box-kicks constantly put England under pressure in the quarter-finals and Marc Lievremont will hope for more of the same.
France - Team News: Lievremont has refrained from tinkering with a winning formula so Dimitri Yachvili starts at scrum-half despite concerns over his injured knee. Parra lines up at ten with Maxime Medard anchoring the side at fullback alongside Vincent Clerc and Alexis Palisson on the wings. Maxime Mermoz and Aurelien Rougerie start in the centres. Up front the impressive Nicolas Mas is joined by William Servat and Jean Baptiste-Poux with Pascal Pape and Lionet Nallet providing the grunt in the second-row engine room. Imanol Harinordoquy, Julien Bonnaire and Thierry Dusautoir are the back-row.
Key Battle: Nicolas Mas taught Matt Stevens a lesson last weekend and Gethin Jenkins will have to be at his best if he is to go toe-to-toe with the French prop. In 2009 Jenkins was arguably the inform prop in the northern hemisphere - maybe even the world - and with this in mind, he'll have to hark back two years to provide his team with a solid platform at the set-piece from which they can play their expansive game.
Stats: Wales No.8 Toby Faletau holds a hugely impressive record thus far in the World Cup having made 65 tackles and missing none.
Trivia: Maxime Medard has made eight offloads so far in the World Cup with only two players ahead of him in the rankings. Sonny Bill Williams is on nine but leading the way is John Smit on 11.
" The time to reflect and to celebrate will come if we win our next two matches, until that happens our focus on the task ahead must be absolute."
"From the moment I realised that François Trinh Duc wasn't at his best level and that he seemed to doubt himself, and that David Skrela was forced to withdraw due to injury, the choice of naming Morgan at 10 became obvious."
Prediction: It's flip a coin time for this match but despite the temptation to sit on the fence - expect Wales to edge this by the narrowest of margins to tee up a maiden World Cup final.
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
Concussion, relegation and the mother of all surprises - it's the Monday Maul.
Huw Richards assesses where Wales are after a mixed Six Nations, with front row seats still very much available for the World Cup
John Mitchell lapped up the action on 'Sensational Saturday' - but warns not to expect a repeat come Rugby World Cup time later this year
Craig Dowd warns England, Ireland and Wales they should play to their strengths rather than those of the All Blacks and the Wallabies