The entente between France and Wales has turned distinctly uncordiale before Saturday’s meeting between the sides in Cardiff. The hosts fired the first shot by accusing Les Bleus of cheating in the scrums and the Six Nations leaders responded by calling them childish.
The Wales loosehead prop Wyn Jones used the word cheat on Tuesday when he said how his side’s attempts to abide by the regulations in the scrum and remaining square on the drive were being undermined by opposition tightheads getting away with boring in and destabilising the set-piece. Ireland and France came in for special mention, with the latter accused of wilfully flouting the rules.
But the France head coach, Fabian Galthié, hit back after naming his team on Thursday. “It’s a lack of respect towards our scrum, towards our team, towards French rugby, towards our nation,” he said.
His comments were backed by the France manager, Raphaël Ibañez. “It was a blatant, childish attack,” he said. “Our reference is the referee [Matt Carley], not a rival team’s coach or player.” He then criticised Wales for picking Dan Biggar after the outside‑half suffered a third head injury in five months in the last round in Dublin.
“We could also question the fate of their fly-half who has been knocked out several times but has been going through the concussion protocol managed by the Welsh federation,” said Ibañez, whose playing career was cut short by a series of concussions. “We hope it’s been as efficient as possible in the interest of the player’s health.”
Biggar was considered for selection after being examined by a leading concussion expert, even though Six Nations regulations do not oblige teams to take that route if a player has failed more than one head injury assessment in a 12-month period.
“Dan went through the protocols and passed with flying colours,” said the Wales head coach, Wayne Pivac. “Then we went to a world leading expert in concussion, who he saw at the World Cup. Every precaution has been taken and he has been cleared to play.”
Jones would not have volunteered that France cheated in the scrum in an unguarded moment. It was a calculated attempt to alert Carley to the set-piece where Wales feel they have been dealt with unjustly in the opening two rounds, although Pivac decided that fire did not need anything more added to it.
“We are working solidly on our scrum and want to be squeaky clean there,” he said, when asked about France’s reaction. “We saw a big improvement against Ireland and apart from one scrum we did well, although we have had a report back saying that the penalty decision maybe went the wrong way.”
Pivac has made two changes from the team that lost in Dublin. Gareth Davies returns at scrum-half and Ross Moriarty replaces Aaron Wainwright on the blind-side, an indication that Wales will look to get over the gainline before moving the ball wide on an evening when defeat would all but end their title challenge.
Wales L Halfpenny (Scarlets); G North (Ospreys), N Tompkins (Saracens), H Parkes (Scarlets), J Adams (Cardiff Blues); D Biggar (Northampton), G Davies (Scarlets); W Jones (Scarlets), K Owens (Scarlets), D Lewis (Cardiff Blues), J Ball (Scarlets), A W Jones (Ospreys, capt), R Moriarty (Dragons), J Tipuric (Ospreys), T Faletau (Bath).
Replacements: R Elias (Scarlets), R Evans (Scarlets), L Brown (Dragons), W Rowlands (Wasps), A Wainwright (Dragons), T Williams (Cardiff Blues), J Evans (Cardiff Blues), J McNicholl (Scarlets).
France A Bouthier (Montpellier); T Thomas (Racing 92), V Vakatawa (Racing 92), A Vincent (Montpellier), G Fickou (Stade Francais); R Ntamack (Toulouse), A Dupont (Toulouse); C Baille (Toulouse), J Marchand (Toulouse), M Haouas (Montpellier), B Le Roux (Racing 92), P Willemse (Montpellier), F Cros (Toulouse), C Ollivon (Toulon, capt), G Alldritt (La Rochelle).
Replacements: C Chat (Racing 92), J-B Gros (Toulon), D Bamba (Lyon), R Taofifenua (Toulon), D Cretin (Lyon), B Serin (Toulon), M Jalibert (Bordeaux-Begles), T Ramos (Toulouse).
“Games against France have been close in recent years,” said Pivac. “I do not think this week will be any different. They have started well and will come full of confidence while we want to right the wrongs of the Ireland game. We know we have a better performance in us and are pleased to be back home in front of a sell-out crowd.”
France have not won in the Six Nations in Cardiff since 2010 and only in Rome on the road since 2014. They have made one change from the side that secured a bonus point victory over Italy in the last round with Gaël Fickou moving to the wing in place of the injured Vincent Rattez and Virimi Vakatawa returning to the centre.
Fickou is the one survivor from France’s starting line-up on their last visit to Cardiff in 2018 when, again on the wing, he scored their try in a 14-13 defeat. Wales also won by a point in October’s World Cup quarter-final in Oita, coming from behind after Sébastien Vahaamahina was sent off after elbowing Wainwright in the face. Wales, in contrast, have 859 caps in their starting team, a Six Nations record.
The roof will be closed after weeks of incessant rain in Wales. The Welsh Rugby Union will be holding a collection for clubs whose grounds were flooded having started the fund with a £100,000 donation.