The Expert View
Gwyn Jones 12 February 2009
I've spent hours and hours analysing tapes of France trying to get a handle on how the mind of their national coach works. I've tried to work out how he wants France to play and hoped, by endlessly studying the video, I could pick up patterns of play. I've tried to identify who the key players are and how those players are brought into the game from scrums, line-outs and restarts. And after all that hard slog, I'd hoped to have had an insight into the mind of Marc Liévremont.
Well, I should have known better. Trying to find a coherent philosophy in the mind of a French rugby coach is near enough impossible. I worked for two years as a psychiatrist and I've become hardened to tangential thinking and peculiar behaviour but I am yet to understand the internal machinations of France's head coach.
Benouit Baby at number ten is the most interesting selection because he will be a direct contrast to Beauxis. Baby is a centre who has played little at stand off, so his instinct will be to run, especially when he is under pressure. Playing in an unfamiliar position in front of an expectant home crowd will be pressure enough but he will also face Wales' blitz defence. This is something he will have never previously experienced in that position, as hardly any French teams use that tactic.
Wales will surely look to hurry Baby into errors and he will turn away from his outside backs as the defensive rush comes up. He may try to kick his way out of trouble, but that is not an easy thing to do, because although much of the ping pong exchanges that we see in the modern game look like mindless hoofing down the pitch, there is actually an organised strategy behind it. Honest!
The selection of the humungus Mathieu Bastareaud in the centre smacks of the French answer to the Jamie Roberts question. Roberts was partially subdued by Worsley against England and Lievremont may be trying to beef up his midfield. Bastareaud may well be set up as the defensive fly half allowing Baby to move to his usual position of centre.
Isn't it refreshing to see other teams having to alter their game plan or even change their personnel in order to stop Wales playing? It is a huge compliment to this squad that they are being respected in this way by their peers. Furthermore, Wales should not be dictated to either. It's part of the opposition's plan to make Wales change and we should not be obliging to move away from the game that works just because the team we're facing has prepared for us.
Gatland is bullish and his team is confident, this Welsh side will not yield without the mother of all fights. What's more I think we may see a bit of wit and cunning in attack, but it will be on our terms only.
I have never felt so confident that Wales can win in Paris. It will require our best performance so far but this team has a lot more to give. The mercurial French may produce one of those stunning performances that they tend to save for the All Blacks during World Cups. If they do, then well done them. But it's something of that ilk that will be needed to stop Wales leaving Paris with the spoils on Friday night.