Wales have one eye on beating France and one eye on world rankings
Graham Henry once lamented that Welsh rugby was bedevilled by extremes and that if it were a shower, it would be either too hot or too cold. This season has been no different and eight days after going into the match against Ireland knowing defeat in the final two rounds could take them out of the top eight of the rankings in May’s World Cup draw, Wales will move into the top four if they win in Paris and Ireland lose to England.
Wales have been obsessed by the world rankings since the start of the autumn international series. It is understandable given that in 2015 they were put in the same pool as England and Australia after slipping out of the top eight just before the draw, but it has hindered the development of the side with selection sclerotic.
While uncapped players such as the Wasps flanker Thomas Young and the Leicester fly-half Owen Williams were brought into the squad for the tournament, the only action they have seen has been on the training field. Despite Wales’s enthusiasm for a wider, more fluid game plan after years of stuffing the ball under armpits or sending it high into the air, Sam Davies has yet to start a game at 10.
Davies showed when he came on for the second half in Italy that he is able to fire a back division by standing flat, drawing defenders and creating space for his outside backs. For once, overlaps were not squandered, which was not the case the following week when they played England at home and failed to turn possession into points. Davies remained on the bench that day as Wales tried to nurse a lead in the final quarter only to blow it with four minutes to go and the following week, after another half-time advantage was forfeited against Scotland, Jamie Roberts was summoned before Davies.
Wales remain constrained by a conservatism that puts defence before attack and they do not score enough points, averaging less than 14 in the last three rounds, but they are resilient and at their most dangerous when written off. As they watch England speeding away 18 months after defeating them at Twickenham in the World Cup, they need to become more reactive and less prescriptive. They are playing on AM when the Test game has moved to DAB.
Gone, though, are the days when the prospect of playing France made them knock-kneed. Wales won the championship fixture six times between 1982 and 2011 but they are looking for their sixth in a row against the French who are bidding to go through the tournament unbeaten at home for the first time since 2011.
They have steadily improved after Guy Novès was asked to sift through the wreckage of the 2015 World Cup campaign. They look like France again, prepared to counterattack and offload but lacking the assurance to make the right decisions often enough that makes them vulnerable to turnovers.
Unlike Scotland, they have a physical pack capable of denting defences and forcing penalties. There will come a eureka moment when the players finally rid their minds of the stodgy, incoherent approach France had for virtually a decade before Novès arrived and do to someone what England did to Scotland.
That is unlikely to happen on Saturday. Anger and indignation will not be the fuel Wales run on again having made a point against Ireland, but they have a back row adept at scavenging and a scrum-half in Rhys Webb who is able to turn defence into attack. They should win but if they do make it to fourth in the rankings, it would merely highlight the gap that has opened up between New Zealand, England and the rest.