Building the Perfect Machine
We can say it: "Grand Slam". The gilded Wales team of the 1970s won a trifecta of Grand Slams, but victory tomorrow for the class of 2012 would go some way to putting the spirit of that era to rest. While not quite being the albatross around modern Welsh players' necks, the achievements of Gareth Edwards, JPR Williams et al has often been referred in clubhouses across the land with a suggestive air of 'how could it all have gone so wrong?'
In light of recent Welsh performances in the Six Nations -sometimes in the gutter, sometimes in the stars- come Saturday afternoon, we might be asking ourselves where it all went so right. Ryan Jones, a resurrected force for his country, indicated that a Grand Slam this year would be a different beast to those he helped achieve in 2005 and 2008, mainly because it would be more a calculated accomplishment. Wales went into this competition as one of two frontrunners. The other side, whom they face at the Millennium Stadium tomorrow, are now out of the running.
But first there is the small matter of overturning those anomalous French. Yes, Wales' recent record against France isn't good (one from the past eight), but the last time we played them in this situation we won. With a new dawn of players from all countries, these cycle of results inevitably come to an end. In the knowledge that to say you nearly beat someone actually means that you lost, it is probably best to say that Wales should have beat France at the World Cup. I certainly won't be mentioning red cards any more (this sentence excluded).
It will be a shocker for the French if they fail to win a third match in a row in the Six Nations. I like to think I'm not beholden to statistics, but here's a good one for those sports trivia buffs out there: France have only prevented an opponent from winning the Grand Slam on four occasions, back in 1954, 1965, 1982 and 1988. Let's hope they don't bring their party-pooping hats to a raucous Cardiff city centre.
Six changes to the French team smells like a desperate, last-ditch manoeuvre by Philippe Saint-Andre (apart from the enforced replacement of the injured Vincent Clerc, who was probably worried he might actually get hurt this time). Bringing in new players could theoretically inject some hunger and fresh impetus into the side. Alternately, it could be that they are throwing in some undercooked players to face a sizzling Welsh team.
Far be it from me to comment on who should be allowed to play international rugby, but am I the only one surprised to see that prop David Attoub is back in the side? This is the man who is returning from a 70-week ban after gouging Stephen Ferris' eyes in a Heineken Cup match in December 2010. (His form in the Top 14 is neither here nor there, in my opinion.) In an unhappy coincidence, his Stade Francais teammate Julien Dupuy also made a return to the French squad during this Six Nations. Former Leicester Tigers scrum-half Dupuy gouged Ferris during a separate incident in the same match (the footage is there for all to see) and received a 23-week ban. Maybe it's part and parcel of French rugby to play with people's eyes, but as the old argument goes: if that occurred on the street, somebody would get arrested.
Wales can take inspiration from the fighting talk of our nation's 400m world champion runner Dai Greene. Greene, from Carmarthenshire, was astonishingly macho when commenting on US drug cheat and potential London Olympic rival LaShawn Merritt: "I'll tell you now, I'll happily go and find him at the start and tell him to his face: 'You're a cheat and you shouldn't be here.' I'll be so motivated, so pumped up by his very presence in the race that I'd do anything I could to find myself up against him in the same leg of the relay, no matter what leg it would be."
What fighting spirit. A Welsh rugby player would never dream of saying anything so confrontational, but that's exactly how I imagine they will be feeling as they take to the field. The last time they faced the French, Vincent Clerc rolled on the ground like a worm to exacerbate a nothing situation, while I was astounded to see Sergio Parisse do something similar that resulted in Leigh Halfpenny's yellow card last week. I hope France play the game in the correct spirit tomorrow, because rugby is rugby - not football.
Midi Olympique, the French rugby journal, has taken a pragmatic approach to Saturday's game. I've spared you the shocking online translation (example: 'the Red Devils seem to fly straight to the eleventh Grand Slam in their history. But are they untouchable so far? Not sure, because defects remain in their impenetrable armor alleged'), but the paper concedes that France will struggle to compete with the physicality of the Welsh backs, and should therefore seek other means to compete. However, they then quote Saint-Andre as saying that he is out to "beef up" his midfield, which would explain the return of Florian Fritz, who partners Aurelien Rougerie in the centre.
France fullback Clement Poitrenaud (who, if you saw the 2004 Heineken Cup final between Wasps and Toulouse, you will know is Wales assistant coach Rob Howley's favourite player) has already proclaimed that his side are "not going to slaughter" against Wales. It should be pointed out here that it's not really his choice, because the French backline showed moments of sheepishness in letting Manu Tuilagi and Tom Croft score two tries in their loss to England.
The French, according to the pokey-fingered Attoub, have nothing to save but their honour. Meanwhile, Wales are playing for outright glory and the right to be hailed Kings of Europe. In this instance, honour and nobility are two different things.
Those who still believe England are in with a mathematical shout of winning the tournament have got enough optimism to fill a self-help bookshelf. They need results to go their way, but with Ireland's penchant for raising merry hell when playing the Red Rose, and Wales' desire to get the Slam, they are out of touch and out of time (Hall and Oates, 1984).
More stats for you (I've started, so I'll finish): Ireland have won the last eight of nine games with England, and have won at Twickenham in three of their last four visits. While stats aren't crystal balls, Ireland relish these games with England like no other.
Even without the brilliant duo of Paul O'Connell and Brian O'Driscoll (of whom Donncha O'Callaghan, ever the wordsmith, said: "Sometimes you get a bit frustrated when Brian and Paul are out of the squad because some people seem to think you can't tie your shoelaces without them"), Ireland can seriously derail any ephemeral English notions of truly being the fourth best side in the world.
I get the feeling that Declan Kidney has formulated a masterplan so groundbreaking that it poses a threat to the very fabric of the society of prawn sandwich-eating, Barbour-wearing, Land Rover-driving Twickenham enthusiasts.
Well, we can all dare to dream.
LOOKALIKES OF THE WEEK
When I first saw Clermont Auvergne winger Julien Malzieu warming up for a Heineken Cup match versus Leinster a few years ago, I really wanted it to be an infiltration by Bruno (alter ego of Sacha Baron Cohen), such was their similarity. I assume you know Bruno, the skimpily dressed muse of Austrian fashion designer Chrysler. He's also the self-proclaimed "biggest Austrian superstar since Hitler", but the less said about that the better.
As I've said before, I don't blame the English for getting carried away with their victory over France: they needed a boost to their morale after recent results. What I do find irksome are comments such as those from Tom Croft to the Daily Mirror: "[Wales had] been talked about massively and we took them apart for most of the 80 minutes, but let it slip."
To give you just a little taste of how Wales had the upper hand in that match at Twickenham: they were stronger at scrum time, they made three line breaks to England's one, had a better tackle completion rate and -here's the kicker- tore England apart with that scintillating Scott Williams try. Croft, one of the best blindside flankers in Europe, was actually playing in the game and so his opinion is compelling, but it's probably one that should have been kept to himself as opposed to the Mirror, not a paper renowned for its love of rugby.
In all likelihood, England are going to be a quality team very soon, but lest we forget, France aren't the best barometer of where they currently stand. This isn't to take away from their jubilation at having beaten them in Paris (a remarkable achievement), but it was only six months ago that France lost to Tonga in the World Cup, falling off tackles in a similar capitulatory manner to that which was witnessed on Sunday.
Another player to rewrite history last weekend was Mirco Bergamasco, the Italian winger who seems to prefer starting fights than playing attacking rugby. In his post-match comments, he believed that Italy had kept in touch with Wales throughout his side's 24-3 loss. Perhaps I should stress that last part: 24-3 LOSS. Such revisionism is slightly insulting to Wales, especially when you consider how little Italy set out to do in attack. Their defence was outstanding, of course, but to the detriment of actually scoring tries. All together now: boooring...
Tomorrow's match is a significant stepping stone to bigger things for Wales. Having had the spoon of World Cup final ambrosia cruelly snatched from our mouths last year, this side is now creating its own nostalgia. They might also be saving their biggest performance for last in this year's Six Nations. Win tomorrow and we can look forward to the possibility of taking an Australian scalp in the Suncorp Stadium in June. Do that and we will truly have gone where no Welsh rugby team has gone before.
Follow me on Twitter: @bazzbarrett