Moving day looms in Six Nations
February 25, 2009
Can Marc Lievremont's new-look side de-rail Wales' Grand Slam bid? © Getty Images
Declan Kidney Girvan Dempsey Shaun Edwards Toby Flood Andy Goode Gavin Henson Shane Horgan Martin Johnson Andy Powell Shane Williams Joe Worsley
In golf they always talk about Saturday - the third day of the tournament - as 'moving' day. You cannot win the tournament on a Saturday but you can certainly lose it.
This is moving weekend in the 2009 Six Nations. England and France can force their way back into contention or Wales and Ireland can take a stranglehold on this year's Championship.
First up it is France v Wales in Paris on Friday evening. Just looking at the fixtures before the tournament began this stood out as the obvious stumbling block for Wales. It still is but I am now feeling more confident of a Welsh victory.
Originally, I thought the Friday factor might work in favour of France but their coach, Marc Lievremont, has already voiced his distaste for late, late kick-offs and it seems as if they are not too popular with the players either.
There will certainly be fewer Welsh supporters than normal - it is much easier to get hold of tickets for this game than for the Saturday match against Italy in two weeks time - which might help France a little but certainly not as much as it would have done at the Parc des Princes.
The Stade de France is a magnificent, modern edifice in many ways but, like most grounds with a running track around the pitch, it lacks the bear pit atmosphere of those, like the Millennium Stadium, which are purpose built to bring the fans into the action.
But the biggest boost for Wales could be the lack of confidence that France showed against Scotland. Having applauded themselves after the defeat in Ireland for having returned to their roots and the 'beautiful game' they played safety first rugby in their first home game and it was arguably Scotland who showed more flair - not something I believed I would be writing this season!
The French cause has not been helped by the injury to Lionel Beauxis - the only out and out No.10 in the original squad. Lievremont is talking up his replacement, Benoit Baby (normally a centre) but it will be a much changed and very inexperienced French back-line with Morgan Parra in at scrum-half and Mathieu Bastaraud at centre.
So, which French team will turn up? It looks to me as if Lievremont is going for all out attack and if they are to beat Wales it has to be the all running, all buzzing France because Wales, as they showed against England, have now developed an efficiency and consistency that will see off most teams even if they are not at their absolute best.
England set out to nullify find of the season, Andy Powell, and Joe Worsley did a fine job in stopping him but his ball carrying was still mightily effective. France, with no Serge Betsen-type figure in the back-row, will find him a handful.
With Shane Williams back and Gavin Henson ready to bring his skills to the party Wales' attacking options should be enhanced but I believe defence will be the key to the match.
Wales conceded only two tries in the whole of the 2008 Six Nations and I shall never forget the defensive effort in that first 30 minutes against France. The French threw everything at them but never even crossed the gain-line. You could see the belief begin to slip away and from then on it was plain sailing.
Shaun Edwards remembers that too and felt things had slipped a little against England. I shall be surprised if there is not a marked difference in intensity on Friday.
What does the selection of Toby Flood to start against England tell us? It is certainly a nod in the positive direction but there is no full admission that Andy Goode is too limited because he remains on the bench.
He is certainly not there as a bold attacking option for the last quarter which presumes a scenario I find hard to fathom. Two years ago England lost 43-13 on their first visit to Croke Park - their biggest ever Six Nations loss in terms of margin and points conceded - and it is suggests unbelievable conceit if they think they will be in a position to bring him on to close down the game this time round.
They obviously want to build on the good things they can take out of the Wales game and were always unlikely to go for drastic surgery but this is another example of Martin Johnson's ultra conservatism. Goode's presence on the bench serves no purpose but to say thank you for stepping into the breach!
Ireland will be delighted as they look to go up another notch. Their wily coach, Declan Kidney, has only good dilemmas about selection as he revealed when asked to comment on the fact there was no room in the match 22 for the likes of Girvan Dempsey and Shane Horgan.
"There are lots of guys I'd love to play, good players who aren't getting a chance….. that's the making of a good side."
I think Ireland will be too good for England, improving Scotland should have the confidence to see off Italy in the Wooden Spoon decider and I'm now going for a Welsh win in Paris.
I am not as confident on that final prediction as on the others but, if I do come out of this weekend with nine out of nine, it surely has to be a Grand Slam showdown in Cardiff on March 21.
John Taylor is a former Wales and British & Irish Lions international and a regular contributor to Scrum.com