In-form Wales out to derail France

In-form Wales out to derail France
Stewart Baird (File)

Wales go into their World Cup semi-final against France as favourites having hit a rich vein of form that mixes defensive nous with attacking flair.

Led by 23-year-old captain Sam Warburton, Wales rebounded from an opening 17-16 pool loss to South Africa to rack up victories over Samoa, Namibia and Fiji before outplaying Ireland in last weekend’s 22-10 quarter-final win.

But they’ve been forced into making a change in a key position following that match with utility back James Hook starting in his favoured role of fly-half after Rhys Priestland, one of Wales’s stars at this World Cup, was ruled out with a shoulder injury suffered against the Irish.

Wales coach Warren Gatland opted to start Hook instead of veteran stand-off Stephen Jones, who is on the bench instead.

“Time was against Rhys,” said Gatland. “We’re lucky we haven’t picked up too many injuries in this competition, and we’re lucky to have James to come in,” with the New Zealander adding it had been a “tough call” between Hook and Jones for the No 10 shirt.

Saturday’s match will be Wales’ first semi-final appearance since the inaugural World Cup in 1987, when they were well beaten by the All Blacks.

France have reached the last four despite losing twice in the pool phase, to New Zealand and, in their final group match, Tonga.

But they turned the formbook on its head with a gutsy display against a toothless England, winning 19-12 to advance to the final four and earlier this week France coach Marc Lievremont named an unchanged team.

Twelve of France’s 30 players at this World Cup lived through the disappointment of a semi-final exit four years ago on home soil, with three still in the starting XV: wing Vincent Clerc and flankers Julien Bonnaire and Thierry Dusautoir, who will captain the side at Auckland’s Eden Park this

After pulling off a shock 20-18 victory over favourites New Zealand in the 2007 quarter-final in Cardiff, the French imploded in the semi-final against England, who went on to lose to South Africa in the final.

And this time around, the French, losing finalists in 1987 and 1999 but yet to win the World Cup, have vowed to do their best to prevent it happening again.

“There are many of us in the squad who went through 2007, we know very well what can happen after an excess of euphoria,” said Dusautoir.

France No 8 Imanol Harinordoquy boldly proclaimed Wales the “All Blacks of the northern hemisphere”.

“They’re a very good team and above all one which is oozing confidence,” he said. “They seem to be very calm among themselves. Even if they’re hassled in the games, they don’t let it go.

“They fall back on their gameplans, what they know how to do. I haven’t really seen a team in this tournament that has made them suffer, that has really been able to destabilise them.

“That’s really a very strong point for them.”

The French have rarely produced two great performances on successive weekends of World Cup knockout action but Warburton said: “I’ve been involved in two squads that have played France and twice we lost.

“But it’s a World Cup and, as the results have shown so far, anything can happen,” the openside flanker added.

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