Six Nations 2016: Wales banking on lift from French unrest caused by Paris merger

James Corrigan
The Telegraph
France stars Brice Dulin (right) and Kevin Gourdon walk out for training - AFP or licensors
France stars Brice Dulin (right) and Kevin Gourdon walk out for training - AFP or licensors

With protest and, yes, revolt, hanging thick in the Paris air, Wales are determined not to be drawn into the belief that the bombshell of the proposed merger between Stade François and Racing 92 will necessarily work against the national team.

The rugby emotions are certainly running high in this city, with the players at Stade having called a strike and with the French players’ union promising “big disruption”. On Friday, the French league decided to postpone this weekend’s matches involving the two capital teams, “to preserve the equity of the Top 14” with crunch talks to come on Monday.

But the five players from the clubs involved in the France match-day squad have to carry on regardless and Ken Owens, the in-form Wales hooker, thinks this could go one of two ways.

Of course, there is the possibility of distraction, but there is also the little matter of their future employment to play for and there could be no better shop window. This could apply not only to the Stade and Racing representatives – the likes of Brice Dulin at full-back and Rabah Slimani at tighthead – but the rest as well. Because very soon there could be 45 top-class performers looking for clubs and there would be players outside of Paris who would be ousted in the fallout.

<span>France full-back Brice Dulin</span> <span>Credit: REUTERS </span>
France full-back Brice Dulin Credit: REUTERS

“It depends what sort of mindset the French players have,” Owens said. “They could be playing for their contracts, so there is all sorts of motivation. It must be a difficult time for them, but that’s professional sport.

“Things are dictated by finances. Owners and directors make decisions for the financial benefit of the club and, as players, you have to understand that. All you can do is keep playing well and try to prove your worth and be as professional as you can.”

So much for a dead rubber. There would be plenty riding on this encounter between the Championship’s two most miserly defences anyway. Both sides could finish second in the Six Nations table and for France that would be their best finish in six years.

For Wales the magic placing is fourth. If they were to win and Ireland were to lose against England they would leapfrog Joe Schmidt’s team into fourth in the world rankings and that would mean they would be one of the top seeds at the 2019 World Cup draw in Kyoto in May.

Rugby world rankings

It would be quite the turnaround. A week ago, Rob Howley, the stand-in head coach, knew that defeats in the final two matches would mean they plummeted to ninth in the rankings and in danger of a “pool of death”. The vultures truly would have been circling then. That win against Ireland handed Howley and Wales so much life and there has been a sense at their Vale Hotel HQ this week that this is a golden opportunity they are desperate not to spurn.

“That top four is a large incentive to the coaches and the players,” Howley said.

Certainly, Stade de France presents no fears as Wales have prevailed there on the last two occasions. Indeed, should they record their first away win against opposition other than Italy in 18 months it would extend their triumphant run against Les Bleus to six games, a succession of dominance they have not enjoyed in 60 years. 

<span>Rob Howley oversees final preparations</span> <span>Credit: REX FEATURES </span>
Rob Howley oversees final preparations Credit: REX FEATURES

“In 2013, Paris was where we turned that campaign around before winning the championship,” Sam Warburton said. “The boys have good experiences to draw on out there.”

However, in Guy Noves’s much-improved outfit there are obstacles and they do not come any more imposing than Louis Picamoles at the base of that enormous pack. To Ross Moriarty, the young No 8 preferred to Taulupe Faletau, it is simple. “Louis is a huge man and a huge player for France and hopefully we can do a job on him,” Moriarty said. “We know that if we can stop him on the front foot, then we have got a very good chance.”

Six Nations 2017 fixtures, dates, kick-off times and TV schedule

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