Preview: Wales v France
WORLD CUP QUARTERFINAL: France will need to raise their game “two or three times over” to beat Wales on Sunday.
This is the view of to their veteran fullback Maxime Medard.
“If we don’t raise our level, the Welsh are going to ride all over us,” he said.
Call it gamesmanship or call it honesty, but Medard has no qualms about casting Les Bleus as the underdogs.
“The Welsh have to be favourites.
“The team has been one of the best in the world for several years.
“You have to keep in mind that the difference between the big teams and the rest is that, in games where you’re in trouble, where it turns into an arm-wrestle, the big teams don’t give in. Wales are a very big team.”
France’s 2018 Six Nations defeat against Wales provides reasons both for hope and caution.
“Even though we led 16-0, they knew how to hurt us, how to win the game, and then the Six Nations. When it comes to mental endurance, and the game of chess that takes place during a match, they often come out on top.”
Medard is well aware Les Bleus will need to clean up their game.
“We had some great moments during the pool phase, but there was also a lot of frustration. It would be good to play for 80 minutes rather than 40.
“Above all, we must play together. When we play together, when everyone plays for each other, we’re a fearsome team.
“During the pool phase, there are things to adjust, structures to review, confidence to build. The knockout stages are separate. Everyone will raise their level. It’s like a new competition starting.”
Medard’s experience at World Cup 2011 proved that. France scraped out of the pool phase despite two defeats, one against Tonga (who they defeated at World Cup 2019, above). But in the knockouts, they emerged from their chrysalis.
“We wanted to make amends. It was a question of revenge. Every player has to savour the experience of being in the quarterfinals but also find the motivation however they can to be at 200 percent.”
For all his apparent humility, Medard is clear that Les Bleus can never be written off.
“Because we’re instinct players. When it comes to consistency, we’re clearly not the best. But for a long time, the French XV, French players, have shown they’re capable of competing with anyone in one match, of surpassing ourselves.
“We’re confident in ourselves, in our structures, and in our game.”
Medard, who was not selected for World Cup 2015 despite his good form, is also feeling composed.
“After so many years chasing after the France team, after the 2015 tournament that I missed, coming back at a World Cup and being in a quarterfinal when people were making – largely bad – predictions about us, is very pleasing.”
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Meanwhile, Alun Wyn Jones will make his 19th World Cup appearance, a record for a Welshman.
Not bad for a once rotund teenager who was told by his school coach back in Swansea, ‘you weren’t made to run fast, you were made to hit rucks’.
Jones has now been hitting rucks on the international stage for 13 years, a testament to his fitness, resilience and sheer bloody-mindedness in this most unforgiving of sports.
Since 2006, he has been an omnipresent cog in the engine room of the Wales team across four World Cups.
Sunday’s quarterfinal will mark his 141st test for Wales and the British & Irish Lions, equalling Brian O’Driscoll’s record for a player from the original Five Nations teams. Only New Zealand’s Richie McCaw (148) and Italy’s Sergio Parisse (142) have played more.
Jones rarely features in highlights reels. Instead, one needs only to cast an eye in the direction of his battered, bruised, yet defiant figure at the end of matches to garner the scope of his contribution.
So far at World Cup 2019, he has tackled with a relentless drive which belies his 34 years.
He averages one tackle every five minutes at this tournament, a rate beaten only by Scotland’s Jonny Gray among second-rows. With his capacity to lead the scrum, and steal line-outs – he has claimed two so far at this tournament – he can drive his team-mates on and shift momentum when their energy is draining.
As Wales coach Warren Gatland puts it: “The bigger the occasion, the bigger the challenge, the more he tends to thrive.”
Jones was a towering figure in Wales’ historic 29-25 pool stage win over Australia, the first time they had beaten the Wallabies in a World Cup encounter since 1987.
He led from the front throughout, never more so than when Australia ramped up the pressure during the second half. Overall he made 25 tackles that day. To put this into perspective, only four players have made 25 or more tackles in a match so far at this tournament
Ahead of the tournament, Jones gave an interview in which he cited Ice Guardians – a documentary about the physical brutality endured by the legendary enforcers of Canada’s National Hockey League – as a particular source of inspiration for his own career.
“At the end of the documentary, one of the players is asked what they’d do differently if he had his time again and he replies, ‘I’d do it all again, I’d just go harder’. I loved that,” he said.
When Jones does finally call time on one of world rugby’s most remarkable careers, ‘just go harder’ would be an apt epitaph.
Players to watch
For Wales: Flyhalf Dan Biggar was passed fit to play, despite question marks about his latest concussion episode. Centre Jonathan Davies was also named, after shaking off a knee problem suffered in the pool win against Fiji nine days ago. Powerhouse wing George North has also overcome an ankle injury. Veteran lock Alun Wyn Jones will continue to set the benchmark in another record appearance.
For France: Damian Penaud and Antoine Dupont have shrugged off niggles to make the cut in what are significant selections. Electric wing Penaud (lower stomach) and livewire scrumhalf Dupont (back) take their place in a starting XV that will be captained by hooker Guilhem Guirado. Guirado will make his first start in three matches, having played second fiddle to Camille Chat in France’s last two pool matches – against the United States (33-9) and Tonga (23-21). South African-born Bernard Le Roux comes in, in place of Arthur Iturria in the second row – having missed France’s three warm-up matches because of a ban, but showed up well against the United States.
Head to head
We start at flyhalf – a truly pivotal face-off: Dan Biggar (Wales) versus Romain Ntamack (France). With a decade in age separating the pair, the No.10 battle is between youth and experience, as Biggar and Ntamack will wrestle for control of the match in Oita. Despite his callow age and only 11 caps, Ntamack has already earned a reputation within the squad as a leader. In contrast, 30-year-old Biggar has already proved he can deliver on the biggest stage, scoring most of Wales’s 28 points in the pool clash with England in 2015.
Not far for that is the scrumhalf battle – Gareth Davies (Wales) versus Antoine Dupont (France). Youth and experience also scrap it out at No.9 – as the 22-year-old Antoine Dupont takes on Gareth Davies, seven years his senior and with 40 more caps to his name. Davies has been instrumental in Wales’ unblemished record in this tournament, his kicking and distribution key to winning field position and releasing attacking options for the Six Nations champions. Dupont returns to the French side after a back injury.
Finally, we look at the tall timber – Alun Wyn Jones (Wales) versus Sebastien Vahaamahina (France). At the grand old age of 34, Alun Wyn Jones was rested for Wales’ last pool match against Uruguay and the talismanic lock will be raring to go for what will be a record-extending 132nd cap. Standing more than two metres (six feet, seven inches) tall, Sebastien Vahaamahina is a giant in every sense for Les Bleus.
Prediction: There is no doubt Wales are the favourites, but you never write the French off. If they decide to switch on, they can beat anybody. We feel Wales will win an arm-wrestle by 10 points.
Wales: 15 Liam Williams, 14 George North, 13 Jonathan Davies, 12 Hadleigh Parkes, 11 Josh Adams, 10 Dan Biggar, 9 Gareth Davies, 8 Josh Navidi, 7 Justin Tipuric, 6 Aaron Wainwright, 5 Alun Wyn Jones (captain), 4 Jake Ball, 3 Tomas Francis, 2 Ken Owens, 1 Wyn Jones.
Replacements: 16 Elliot Dee, 17 Rhys Carre, 18 Dillon Lewis, 19 Adam Beard, 20 Ross Moriarty, 21 Tomos Williams, 22 Rhys Patchell, 23 Owen Watkin.
France: 15 Maxime Medard, 14 Damian Penaud, 13 Virimi Vakatawa, 12 Gael Fickou, 11 Yoann Huget, 10 Romain Ntamack, 9 Antoine Dupont, 8 Gregory Alldritt, 7 Charles Ollivon, 6 Wenceslas Lauret, 5 Sebastien Vahaamahina, 4 Bernard Le Roux, 3 Rabah Slimani, 2 Guilhem Guirado (captain), 1 Jefferson Poirot.
Replacements: 16 Cyril Baille, 17 Camille Chat, 18 Emerick Setiano, 19 Paul Gabrillagues, 20 Louis Picamoles, 21 Baptiste Serin, 22 Camille Lopez, 23 Vincent Rattez.
Date: Sunday, October 20
Venue: Oita Stadium, Oita Prefecture
Kick-off: 16.15 (07.15 GMT; 08.15 UK & Ireland time; 09.15 France time)
Expected weather: Mostly cloudy and comfortable. High of 23°C and a low of 14°C
Referee: Jaco Peyper (South Africa)
Assistant referees: Nic Berry (Australia), Paul Williams (New Zealand)
TMO: Marius Jonker (South Africa)