SIR CLIVE WOODWARD: Wales face France with no pressure or expectation

SIR CLIVE WOODWARD: Wales have defied all expectations and can play without pressure in Grand Slam clash… but I’m tipping France to edge a Six Nations classic this weekend

  • No Welsh fan or pundit expected their side to be in this position a few weeks ago
  • They can go into Saturday’s Grand Slam showdown without any pressure
  • How France respond to the disappointing loss to England will be crucial
  • The threats posed by Wales should bring out the best in the dangerous French 

I have yet to find a Wales fan or pundit who predicted a Grand Slam, so there is no pressure whatsoever on Wayne Pivac and his squad at the Stade de France on Saturday night.

A Slam would be a huge bonus for Wales. Failing that, the championship would be a huge achievement.

Having said that, I am still tipping France to win. There might well be an anxious wait until next Friday night’s delayed game against the Scots before this year’s championship is done and dusted. 

Wayne Pivac’s Welsh side have defied all expectations and can play without any pressure

Saturday’s Grand Slam clash will be decided by how France respond to the England defeat

Virimi Vakatawa v George North

Outside centre is a tough position defensively and Vakatawa always makes life difficult for his opposite number. North has done really well since switching from wing to 13 but this is going to be a big test.

Gregory Alldritt v Taulupe Faletau

Alldritt is a terrific hard-working ball carrier who is integral to the French effort, giving them the fast go-forward ball that Dupont can work off. Faletau is fully fit and in great form again. A fantastic match-up to savour.

Antoine Dupont v Gareth Davies

At Twickenham last week Ben Youngs gave as good as he got against Dupont and it threw the great French scrum-half a little off-kilter. Davies must do the same for Wales at the Stade de France on Saturday night if his team are to prosper.

Everything hinges on how France bounce back from what was a very disappointing defeat at Twickenham. Standing on the touchline you could see how gutted they were. When I reviewed that game again in midweek, you have to say they got some pretty harsh penalty calls against them, including two of the penalties Owen Farrell kicked.

I have no doubt Maro Itoje’s late try was sound but the long, agonising process by which the decision was made after initially being called no try will have played on their minds.

As well as England played, France could easily have won that game. I’m sure they expected to notch a win but it didn’t happen — the first big setback for this group. Now they must dust themselves off and go again. Nothing needs to change in their approach, just be more precise when the chances offer themselves and keep doing the basics well.

France have yet to concede a penalty for offside in the tournament so far, as opposed to 11 last season, and Saturday night would not be a good time to start losing that concentration and focus.

Shaun Edwards has really sharpened up that side of their game and it means they are less vulnerable when things aren’t going their way but they must start maximising their attacking potential again.

Bizarrely, this is their first home game of this Covid-affected 2021 Six Nations and that’s another reason why I believe they will raise their game for the visit of Wales. I’m expecting a big French reaction and a fast start. The key for Wales will be matching that.

Shaun Edwards has done a superb job with a French defence that has shown great discipline

Bizarrely, this is their first home game of this Covid-affected 2021 Six Nations and that’s another reason why I believe they will raise their game for the visit of Wales. I’m expecting a big French reaction and a fast start. The key for Wales will be matching that.

Wales have confounded so many people this season — including me. I did note in my tournament preview that they still had high-quality players and only lost narrowly to South Africa in the World cup semi-final. Their problem was they just had to start performing.

There is a good deal of truth in that. Alun Wyn Jones has flexed his muscles again after a quiet autumn, the influential Ken Owens has returned from injury, Taulupe Faletau is firing again and Jonathan Davies has overcome more injury issues to start looking the world-class performer he is. Justin Tipuric is back to his very best, Josh Adams is still a lethal finisher. These are all mighty players.

But it’s more than that. Wales have also really kicked on. Wyn Jones is scrummaging strongly and Pivac was adventurous enough in the autumn to blood Callum Sheedy and Louis Rees-Zammit.

Justin Tipuric is back to his very best and just one of Wales’ star players hitting top form again

I am not a fan of replacements but must concede that Sheedy is one of the few players who really does add something when he comes off the bench, and Rees-Zammit has been a revelation, one of the quickest wings I’ve ever seen with bags of skill and rugby nous. His career is only going in one direction.

All this is really promising. Wales have the firepower to really tackle the French every which way but I also think France themselves will see that as a challenge. It will spark them up.

So I’m taking France to win a Six Nations classic and if that does happen, of course the subplot will be whether the French can claim a try bonus point and/or whether Wales could pick up losing bonus points ahead of next Friday’s finale. Everything to play for.

I’m tipping France to win in what should be a classic but there is still everything to play for




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