Wales hope to finish campaign with Paris surprise

2 weeks ago 17
Wales players L-R Adam Beard, Owen Williams, Ken Owens, George North, Wyn Jones, Gareth Thomas, Tomos Williams, Josh Adams, Justin Tipuric, Rio Dyer and Joe Hawkins celebrate victory over Italy in Rome with captain Owens leading the wayWales players celebrate victory over Italy in Rome with captain Ken Owens leading the way
Venue: Stade de France, Paris Date: Saturday, 18 March Kick-off:14:45 GMT
Coverage: Live on S4C, BBC Radio Wales, BBC Radio Cymru, the BBC Sport website & app; live text commentary on BBC Sport website & app.

So the traumatic and turbulent 2023 Six Nations journey for Welsh rugby finally finishes in Paris.

It is hard to recall a more depressing period of Welsh rugby in recent times with travails on the pitch heightened by the continual controversies off it.

Now Wales find themselves in France, the destination for the World Cup later this year.

At the Stade de France on Saturday, Warren Gatland's side have the chance to sign off this competition with something to build on for when Wales return for the global tournament in September.

The main issue the visitors face is that that hosts France are ranked number two in the world and underlined their status in a record 53-10 demolition of England at Twickenham last weekend.

Everything points to a home win. Wales will have to prove otherwise.

No Gatland bounce

Wales won three Grand Slams and four Six Nations titles during Warren Gatland's first 12-year stint in chargeWales won three Grand Slams and four Six Nations titles during Warren Gatland's first 12-year stint in charge

It is fair to say the Gatland homecoming has not lived up to the romantic expectations of some after he decided to return for a second stint in charge, three years after he left.

It was perhaps foolhardy to hope for, let alone expect miracles after a lacklustre 2022 under Wayne Pivac that yielded in only three wins in 12 games which included home defeats against Italy and Georgia.

Gatland took over from his fellow New Zealander and an optimistic public were hoping for an immediate lift. What they have received is more of the same.

It began seven weeks ago with a thumping home loss to Ireland before a record defeat against Scotland at Murrayfield seven days later.

Then came the troubled build-up ahead of the England game in Cardiff in which the players threatened not to play because of a dispute over professional player contracts throughout the Welsh game.

The Principality Stadium match went ahead, but another defeat ensued before the one relative high of the campaign so far with a hard-fought win over Italy in Rome.

This stopped the possibility of slipping outside the world's top 10 for the first time and avoided a first Six Nations clean sweep of defeats in 20 years.

Now the attention turns to upsetting the rampant French on home soil.

Six Nations swansongs?

Following that first welcome Six Nations win at the seventh attempt, Wales based themselves in Nice as they aimed to avoid the "goldfish bowl" of Welsh rugby.

The beautiful French Riviera has now been swapped for the trip north to Paris, regarded as one of the most captivating cities in the world.

At the moment walking around the city you might not recognise that description with bags of rubbish piling up on the streets.

The French protesters say they are striking for better terms and conditions. Something the Wales squad have also been battling for recently.

One of the main sticking points for the French public is the retirement age is looking to be raised from 62 to 64.

Gatland has his own dilemmas in how to deal with some of his senior servants, who have become Wales stalwarts over the last decade.

The Wales coach flagged the end of an era for Wales in Paris on Saturday by predicting "up to eight" players will potentially make their final Six Nations appearances.

Just under half of Gatland's starting line-up and replacements to tackle France are aged 30 or over. The starting side will boast more than 1,000 caps when the game kicks off at Stade de France.

Wales will look to make it a memorable day for number eight Taulupe Faletau, who becomes his country's eighth cap centurion.

Gatland hails 'incredible servant' Faletau

Recalled trio Alun Wyn Jones, George North and Dan Biggar are already members of that exclusive 100 club. Captain Ken Owens, scrum-half Rhys Webb, flanker Justin Tipuric and Leigh Halfpenny will also be considering what will happen after the World Cup.

While the majority should have key roles to play at the World Cup later this year, long-term planning after that will continue, with or without some of the modern day legends.

They deserve a fitting finale in the Six Nations tournament. Whether that will transpire remains to be seen.

Compare and contrast

Wales players and coaches have stated nobody expects them to win in France this weekend.

Gatland's side might have defeated Italy, but Les Bleus in the forecast Paris sunshine provide a completely different proposition.

France have won four games in a row against Wales, and are fresh from that mesmeric display against England.

A bonus-point victory for Fabien Galthie's side would keep their title hopes alive, although Ireland remain odds-on favourites for the Grand Slam when they host England later in the day.

One glance at the Six Nations table reveals all, with France having scored 16 tries and 133 points in four games.

They are joint-top of the try chart with leaders Ireland, and have amassed more points than any other team.

Wales, in contrast, can reflect on just seven tries and the tournament's worst points difference.

Defensively, only Italy have conceded more tries than Gatland's side, so everything points to Les Bleus dominating.

While the bookmakers are unlikely to give Wales the slightest of glances regarding an away win, the visitors can perhaps take heart from recent performances in the French capital.

They have won on three of their last five Six Nations visits to Paris and the losses were by just two points on each occasion, suggesting it was not a venue they encountered too much trouble with during Gatland's previous stint.

A lot has changed. Since Gatland left after the 2019 World Cup, France have won a Six Nations Grand Slam and toppled New Zealand, South Africa, Australia and Ireland in Paris.

They also have the world's best player in captain and scrum-half Antoine Dupont and defence coach Shaun Edwards in their ranks.

Gatland and Edwards were a dynamic double act that brought success to Wasps and Wales for almost 20 years. Now they find themselves on opposing sides. Another significant sub-plot.

Striving for selection consistency

Twenty-six selection changes and more than 30 players used in five games would suggest Gatland is struggling to settle on his best side.

One of the hallmarks of Gatland's first spell in charge was his consistency and skill in picking the right team and often sticking with his tried and trusted.

That was part of his Midas touch. Gatland will have the summer to try to prove he has not lost that.

Only Owens, wing Josh Adams and Adam Beard have started every game in this campaign and centre, back row, front row and half-back combinations have been chopped and changed,

The countdown to France 2023 continues, and new players have emerged in centres Mason Grady and Joe Hawkins, wing Rio Dyer, lock Dafydd Jenkins and flanker Jac Morgan.

Gatland will hope hooker Dewi Lake and lock Will Rowlands can recover and come into consideration while he will surely welcome centre Johnny Williams' recent return for Scarlets.

Whether Wales have enough strength in depth and sufficient quality to challenge the elite is questionable. But it should be realistic to expect improved showings during World Cup warm-up games in August and the tournament.

That is for five months time. With ongoing turmoil in the professional game, many Welsh fans can not wait for this Six Nations competition to end and do not have the optimism looking forward to that World Cup tournament.

Maybe, if Gatland's Wales can produce a stunning finale in France to complete an underwhelming campaign, that could start to change. How Welsh rugby needs it.

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