AFP/Cardiff, United Kingdom
Wales coach Warren Gatland jokingly said he hoped France had been “partying all night” after beating England ahead of their Six Nations finale in Cardiff on Saturday. Wales will be assured of the runners-up spot behind already-crowned champions Ireland if they record a bonus-point win over France at the Principality Stadium.
But the French will arrive in Wales buoyed by a 22-16 victory over England in Paris last weekend that ended the visitors’ hopes of a third successive Six Nations title. This was France’s second straight victory following a 34-17 defeat of perennial strugglers Italy and a sure sign of their recovery under new coach Jacques Brunel, appointed after Guy Noves was sacked following a miserable two-year spell in charge that yielded just seven victories in 22 matches.
Asked if France might struggle to produce two “big” performances on consecutive weekends, Gatland told reporters: “I hope so. I hope they have been partying all night in Paris after that win — they deserve it!”
On a more serious note, however, Gatland paid tribute to the influence of Brunel. But for an extraordinary last-ditch drop-goal from Jonathan Sexton, the former Perpignan and Italy coach would have won his first game in charge of France in their Championship opener against an Ireland side who are now just 80 minutes away from a Grand Slam.
“You have to take your hat off to Jacques Brunel in terms of the discipline he has brought into the squad,” said Gatland. “They played like that — they played with discipline against England. They deserved to win the match.”
The New Zealander added: “Their defence looks strong at the moment, it was good in the first game against Ireland. They were unlucky not to win that, and then they started well against Scotland (a match France eventually lost 32-26 in Edinburgh).
“Probably conditioning and fitness wise it cost them a little but having a few more games under their belt, a win against Italy, they are showing some cohesion now having been together for a number of games. I thought they were exceptionally good against England.”
Gatland is set to revert to his first-choice side, with regular captain Alun Wyn Jones in line to return to the second row, after making 10 changes to his starting XV for Sunday’s 38-14 win at home to Italy. Wales ran in five tries, including two from powerhouse wing George North, against the Azzurri but they were down to 13 men early in the second half after both Liam Williams and Gareth Davies were shown yellow cards. Gatland was particularly annoyed by the way Williams got himself sin-binned for a high tackle on opposing fullback Matteo Minozzi and warned such indiscipline could prove costly against stronger opposition
“He gave away what I thought was a penalty that did not need to be given away at the breakdown,” Gatland said. “The tackle at the end — I understand what he was trying to do, he was trying to hit him as hard as he could. There was just a bit of frustration, and if he makes that tackle a bit lower there is no problem, but he catches him high and it possibly could have been a red card.”
Former Ireland boss Gatland insisted: “I don’t want him to lose that emotion. That what makes him as a good as he is — he is physical, he has got great work rate, he has great energy and you don’t want to take those things away from him. When things aren’t quite going his way, he needs to keep control and keep calm.”
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