Six Nations 2008
Preview: Wales secure Grand Slam
PA Sport
March 15, 2008
Wales fly-half James Hook dives in to score after ghosting through the Scottish defence, Wales v Scotland, Six Nations, Millennium Stadium, February 9 2008.
James Hook returns to the Wales outside-half jersey for the crunch game with France © Getty Images
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James Hook has reclaimed the fly-half jersey from Stephen Jones for Wales' RBS 6 Nations Grand Slam showdown with France at the Millennium Stadium on Saturday. Jones started Wales' last two victories over Italy and Ireland but head coach Warren Gatland believes Hook's creative qualities will be best suited to tackling the French.

The only other change from Saturday's 16-12 Triple Crown victory in Dublin is the return of hooker Huw Bennett, who missed out at Croke Park after contracting flu. Wales are on the brink of winning the Six Nations title and one victory away from a second Grand Slam triumph in four years.

Gatland said: ''We have an historic opportunity and we intend to grasp it with both hands. We have afforded ourselves the luxury of bringing in James Hook for the different qualities he will offer in this match, but we have pretty much said 'same again' to the boys that brought home the silverware on Saturday.

''Stephen Jones will offer us the benefit of his vast experience from the bench and he is one of a number of players who can come on and change the game for us if necessary. Huw Bennett comes in for Matthew Rees but, as I've said previously, there are marginal selection decisions to make all over the field and hooker is the perfect example of one of them.

''We are confident, we have worked hard and if we continue in the same vein in which we started this campaign, we believe we can come away with a deserved victory on Saturday.''

Wales' healthy points difference means they can afford to lose by 18 points and still be crowned Six Nations champions - but Gatland wants to finish on a high and seal a 10th Welsh Grand Slam.

''It will be nice if we can take the championship, but we'd like to be doing it with a win over France. To win on points difference would be something of a hollow victory,'' said Gatland. ''We have already achieved something in this campaign that can't be taken away from us, but we have an opportunity now to push on and do something a little bit special in front of our home crowd and to put some more smiles on Welsh faces for the second time in eight days.''

France have won their last six matches at the Millennium Stadium, including the World Cup quarter-final against New Zealand. The last time they beat Wales in Cardiff by more than 20 points - the amount required to snatch the title - was in 2000.

They have been an unpredictable force this tournament with new coach Marc Lievremont not afraid to experiment and ring the changes. Gatland added: We have momentum which is what this tournament is all about but you can never underestimate the French. We will probably be tipped as favourites after putting a run of results together and it is how we handle that pressure which will be a deciding factor.''

Ospreys lock Ian Gough will lead the team out at the Millennium Stadium to mark his 50th Test cap, while Duncan Jones is also set to bring up his half-century from the bench. Wales took home their 19th Triple Crown after the 16 - 12 defeat of Ireland at Croke Park last Saturday and next week they celebrate their 100th international of the new Millennium.

France have won their last six matches at the Millennium Stadium, four of those against Wales in the championship - 2000 France beat Wales 36-3, 2002 France beat Wales 37-33, 2004 France beat Wales 29-22, 2006 France beat Wales 21-16.

They also beat Wales 34-7 in a RWC warm-up match and then beat New Zealand 20-18 in the 2007 RWC quarter-finals. France have recalled scrum-half Jean-Baptiste Elissalde but named utility back Cedric Heymans on the bench for the Championship title decider.

Elissalde wins the battle for the number-nine jersey over Dimitri Yachvili, who impressed in Sunday's 25-13 win over Italy. Toulouse star Heymans was expected to return to the starting XV after being rested for the Italy game, but he cannot oust Anthony Floch at full-back and must settle for a place among the replacements.

Elsewhere in the backs, David Skrela gets the nod over Francois Trinh-Duc at fly-half, while there are returns for in-form winger Vincent Clerc and centre Damien Traille. Head coach Marc Lievremont keeps the same front five that started against Italy, but there are two changes in the back row.

Julien Bonnaire is promoted from the bench and is selected at number eight, while flanker Thierry Dusautoir also returns. Montpellier youngster Fulgence Ouedraogo was expected to drop to the bench but he is retained, meaning Elvis Vermeulen - recalled to the squad after being sidelined with broken ribs since the opening-round victory against Scotland - is named as a substitute.

Clermont-Auvergne number eight Vermeulen scored the last-gasp try that sealed the title for France, on points difference over Ireland, in the final game of last season's Six Nations. Les Bleus need to beat the Welsh by at least 20 points this weekend to retain the title they have won for the past two years.

They have beaten Scotland, Ireland and Italy so far this tournament, with their only defeat coming at home to England. Head coach Marc Lievremont admitted the selections for the full-back and scrum-half positions had been the most difficult.

On the decision to pick Elissalde over Yachvili, Lievremont said: ''They are at a very close level at the moment. Perhaps Jean-Baptiste's management of the game and his ability to lead his forwards gave him the advantage.''

On the retention of Floch, who made his first Test start at the weekend, at the expense of Heymans, Lievremont added: ''Anthony had a very good game against Italy and I want to see him again. Heymans still has a big part to play.''

Lievremont said Ouedraogo was keeping Vermeulen on the bench because of his ''great work offensively and defensively since the start of the tournament''.

''We will use the power of Elvis Vermeulen later in the match,'' added Les Bleus' coach.

Lievremont admitted France would need to get the basics right before they could even contemplate beating Wales, unbeaten so far in this Six Nations, by the necessary margin to retain the title.

Permutations:

* If Wales beat France, they win the Grand Slam for the second time in four years, and the 10th time in their history.

* France must beat Wales by at least 20 points to win the Six Nations title.

* If Wales lose to France by 18 points or fewer they would still be crowned Six Nations champions.

* If Wales lose to France by 19 points, the two teams would be level on points difference and the title would go to the team with the most tries in the tournament. Currently, Wales and France have both scored 11.

* If Wales lose by 19 points and the tries scored tally is equal then the title will be shared.

Match Facts:

''First we need to match the Welsh and we need to play our own rugby,'' he said.

''There is a big points gap and to deprive them of the Grand Slam and win by 20 points will be difficult.''

* The countries have met on 84 occasions - Wales lead the series 42-39, with three draws.

* Wales' record win was a 49-14 success in 1910, while France boast a best of 51-0 at Wembley (1998).

* France's landslide win 10 years ago remains' Wales heaviest defeat against any opponent in Five or Six Nations history.

* Wales beat France in Cardiff exactly 30 years ago to win a Five Nations Grand Slam.

* A Wales victory will guarantee their 10th Grand Slam - 100 years after their first clean sweep.

* France must win by a minimum 20-point margin to guarantee the Six Nations title.

* Wales have never beaten France in Cardiff during Six Nations history, losing all four previous meetings.

* Wing Shane Williams needs one touchdown to overtake Gareth Thomas' mark of 40 as Wales' all-time leading Test try scorer.

* Lock Ian Gough will lead out the Wales team to mark his 50th Test cap. Prop Duncan Jones will join the half-century club if he appears from the bench.

* If Stephen Jones comes off the bench, he will become only the seventh Wales player to reach 70 caps, following Gareth Thomas, Colin Charvis, Gareth Llewellyn, Neil Jenkins, Martyn Williams and Ieuan Evans.

* The game will be controlled by South African Marius Jonker, an inexperienced official in Test match terms.

Wales: L Byrne (Ospreys); M Jones (Llanelli Scarlets), T Shanklin (Cardiff Blues), G Henson (Ospreys), S Williams (Ospreys); J Hook (Ospreys), M Phillips (Ospreys); G Jenkins (Cardiff Blues), H Bennett (Ospreys), A Jones (Ospreys), I Gough (Ospreys), AW Jones (Ospreys), J Thomas (Ospreys), M Williams (Cardiff Blues), R Jones (Ospreys, capt).

Replacements: M Rees (Llanelli Scarlets), D Jones (Ospreys), I Evans (Ospreys), G Delve (Gloucester), D Peel (Llanelli Scarlets), S Jones (Llanelli Scarlets), S Parker (Ospreys).

France: A Floch (Clermont-Auvergne); V Clerc, Y Jauzion (both Toulouse), D Traille (Biarritz), J Malzieu (Clermont-Auvergne); D Skrela (Stade Francais), J-B Elissalde (Toulouse); F Barcella (Auch), D Szarzewski (Stade Francais), N Mas (Perpignan), L Nallet (Castres, capt), J Thion (Biarritz), T Dusautoir (Toulouse), F Ouedraogo (Montpellier), J Bonnaire (Clermont-Auvergne).

Replacements: W Servat, J-B Poux (both Toulouse), A Mela (Albi), E Vermeulen (Clermont-Auvergne), D Yachvili (Biarritz), F Trinh-Duc (Montpellier), C Heymans (Toulouse).

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