Gatland's Wales out to join the greats
March 16, 2012
Sam Warburton's dangerous tackle on Vincent Clerc became an iconic image of the Rugby World Cup © Getty Images
Wales open the doors of the Millennium Stadium to France on Saturday, with a third Grand Slam in eight seasons on the line.
As they had to in 2008, when Shane Williams starred in a 29-12 victory, Wales must overcome the Six Nations' most unpredictable foes to secure a clean sweep. Victories at Lansdowne Road and Twickenham have set Warren Gatland's young side on the path to glory, but they must now face any lingering demons from last year's Rugby World Cup semi-final.
On that occasion they lost their skipper, Sam Warburton, to a red card a passed up a host of kickable penalties to lose 9-8, with national pain mixed with outcry at the decision-making of referee Alain Rolland. Gatland will want nothing more than for his side to cast aside any doubts, but he will also want a lift in performance after workmanlike wins over England and Italy.
France, meanwhile, have turned in a real mixed bag and lost at home to England last weekend. They will be spurred on by the occasion and will want to say farewell to the retiring Julien Bonnaire and William Servat in an appropriate manner. This one will be fiercely contested.
Wales - Player to Watch: Sam Warburton, or more specifically the Wales captain's knee. Many observers will point to the fact that the Cardiff Blues flanker will be facing France for the first time since his Auckland red card, but in truth his fitness is more of a concern. With Justin Tipuric omitted from the 22, Warburton has to play 80 minutes as there is no specialist cover at openside. In Paris 12 months ago, his exit with a knock turned the tide for France in a comfortable win.
Wales - Team News: Warburton's return is the only change from the side that defeated Italy. Hooker Matthew Rees wins his 50th cap alongside Adam Jones and Gethin Jenkins, who, along with Ryan Jones, could win a third Grand Slam. Jones provides back-row cover from the bench, while Luke Charteris backs up Alun Wyn Jones and Ian Evans at lock.
France - Player to Watch: France wanted to play territory against England, but got their selection horribly wrong. They've righted it this weekend by recalling the king of the box kick, Dimitri Yachvili. France should try to keep the ball away from Wales' strike runners anywhere near their half and target their lineout at every opportunity.
France - Team News: Saint-Andre has made sweeping changes, many of which were accompanied by a jibe towards the jettisoned player. Yachvili replaces Julien Dupuy, Alexis Palisson takes over from Julien Malzieu and William Servat starts in place of Dimitri Szarzewski at hooker. Florian Fritz returns in the centre, shunting Wesley Fofana to the wing, as France aim to contain Jamie Roberts and Jonathan Davies. Nicolas Mas has been rested, giving David Attoub a rare chance in the limelight at tight-head.
Key Battle: France defended so passively against England that they were overrun in the first-half. If their systems are similarly lax this time out, Roberts, Davies, George North and Alex Cuthbert could do serious damage in midfield.
Trivia: Should Wales win, Jones, Jones and Jenkins will join an elite club populated by three of the greatest players of all time. Gareth Edwards, JPR Williams and Gerald Davies also won three Grand Slams - in 1971, 1976 and 1978.
Stats: France have moved Fofana out of one firing line, straight into another. The Clermont centre weighs in at 5ft 10in and 88kg. His wing partner, Palisson, 5ft 9in and 83kg. North and Cuthbert make the tale of the tape at 6ft 4in, 109kg and 6ft 6in, 104kg respectively.
"It would be brilliant to win three Grand Slams, don't get me wrong, but I think it is more exciting for my family. My parents know the legends of the 1970s. My old man, when he sees Phil Bennett it's like David Beckham's walked in the room." - Wales prop Adam Jones hopes for a big game for his family.
"Julien Dupuy struggled with the rhythm, speed and intensity at this level. Physically he was finished after half an hour. At international level, that's not possible. That's why he won't be back. Julien Malzieu had a very good start to the Championship, but was very tired against the English. I want consistency at international level." - France coach Philippe Saint-Andre refuses to pull any punches.
Prediction: It's set to rain and France are keen for the Millennium Stadium's roof to be open. If they get their way, expect a slugfest with the visitors' experience telling.
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