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Wales prepare for Grand Slam decider

posted 16 Mar 2012, 10:03 by Mpelembe Admin   [ updated 16 Mar 2012, 10:03 ]

Wales will claim their first Six Nations Grand Slam since 2008 if they beat France at the Millennium Stadium on Saturday.

CARDIFF, WALES, UK (MARCH 16, 2012)(REUTERS) - Wales have exuded the quiet confidence of a team who believe they are on the verge of something special throughout a Six Nations championship which could culminate in a grand slam success in Cardiff on Saturday (March 17).

Reversing the result of last year's World Cup semi-final defeat by France would give Wales a third grand slam in eight seasons.

If they do beat a side who have looked jaded after running New Zealand desperately close in the World Cup final, the feeling in the principality that anything in international rugby is now possible will be confirmed.

"I think that new kids on the block," Wales Attacks coach Rob Howley told reporters on Friday (March 16). "You look back to 2008 and it's probably the average age of that team and experience it had.

"And the experience that we've got and the foundation of our side in terms of the front row of Matthew Rees, Adam Jones and Gethin Jenkins and elsewhere, obviously got Mike Phillips at 9 who played and Ian Evans who played so we've got experience and we've got the new kids on the block so it's important that we go out and play."

The 2005 grand slam proved a false dawn with Wales returning to mid-table mediocrity before Gatland took over as coach in the 2008 tournament. In his first season in charge, the New Zealander oversaw another grand slam but his team were subsequently hit badly by injuries.

This year Welsh optimism is based partly on their team's splendid form at the World Cup despite the frustration of narrowly losing to France after captain Sam Warburton was sent off for a dangerous tackle.

In a phrase which is fast becoming a cliche, Wales showed "no fear" and won over of a New Zealand public who are rarely impressed by British rugby.

A second and stronger reason for the Welsh excitement this week during the build-up to Saturday's clash at the Millennium stadium is the strength of their squad.

Wales played magnificently in an epic opening match against Ireland in Dublin, overpowered Scotland in the latter stages of their next match and struggled for long periods during their win over England at Twickenham.

They were again off the pace against Italy, opting to kick for touch rather than goal in the early stages before regrouping to record a victory that was never seriously in doubt.

The Welsh team resolutely refused to comment on the possibility of a grand slam before last week's win over Italy.

Now they are concentrating solely on peaking at the right moment amid the sound and fury in central Cardiff against a side who are always capable of a great performance regardless of their previous form.

"Everyone talks about France coming here and not playing rugby," Howley added. "I'm sure with the amount of talent they've got, when you look at the Six Nations Championship they've shown glimpses, excellent glimpses when they play rugby with the ball in hand.

"It's interesting that over 10 years, 10 years ago maybe Wales would have wanted the roof open and France would have wanted it shut and I think somehow there's a compliment there so we're looking for an opportunity and it will be a fantastic day."

Sam Warburton will return as captain after recovering from a knee injury, and was the only change to the unbeaten side that beat Italy last weekend and that will field the same back line for the fifth successive match.

The openside flanker replaces Justin Tipuric while prop Gethin Jenkins hands over the captaincy.

Matthew Rees retained his place at hooker and will earn his 50th cap for Wales, who are likely to win the title even if they lose to France as they have a 38-point advantage over England, who host Ireland in the last game on Saturday (March 10)

Wales team: 15-Leigh Halfpenny; 14-Alex Cuthbert, 13-Jonathan Davies, 12-Jamie Roberts, 11-George North; 10-Rhys Priestland, 9-Mike Phillips; 8-Toby Faletau, 7-Sam Warburton (Captain),6-Dan Lydiate, 5-Ian Evans, 4-Alun Wyn Jones, 3-Adam Jones, 2-Matthew Rees, 1-Gethin Jenkins.

Replacements: 16-Ken Owens, 17-Paul James, 18-Luke Charteris, 19-Ryan Jones, 20-Lloyd Williams, 21-James Hook, 22-Scott Williams.