In the host nation, it has come to be considered more or less the “other” World Cup semi-final.
While the singular focus in New Zealand is on the All Blacks’ weekend clash with Australia, the Wales versus France semi-final tomorrow counts far more for the combatants than simply determining which of the northern hemisphere teams advances to meet an Antipodean team in the final.
Warren Gatland, the New Zealand-born coach of Wales, announced just one change in his lineup yesterday, two days ahead of the meeting with two-time finalist France. Wales are back into the semi-finals for the first time since the first World Cup was staged in New Zealand in 1987 — also the last time the All Blacks won the title.
While Richie McCaw’s sore foot and injured Dan Carter’s replacement as All Blacks flyhalf and Quade Cooper’s teenage defection to Australia dominate the local news, Wales and France have been getting on with business.
France coach Marc Lievremont announced his team on Tuesday, with just one question mark over scrumhalf and goalkicker Dimitri Yachvili’s badly bruised left thigh.
Wales flyhalf Rhys Priestland did not recover in time from the shoulder injury he sustained in the 22-10 quarter-final win over Ireland and was replaced by James Hook in the starting XV. Stephen Jones, the 102-test veteran, was included on the Welsh bench.
Priestland has been instrumental in the revival of the Welsh running game, directing a young backline from No. 10. However, he has been in doubt all week after being seen in the post-match period with his arm in a sling. Gatland said a decision was taken late on Wednesday when the injury did not respond to treatment, and Hook was drafted.
“You give James an opportunity and we know how good he is,” Gatland said. “To have players of the quality of James Hook to come into the team and Stephen Jones on the bench shows what a good position we’re in with the 10 position at the moment.”
Gatland said the loss of Priestland would not cause Wales to alter an attacking style that has won plenty of accolades in New Zealand, and every match since an opening one-point loss to 2007 champion South Africa.
“We’re not going to change the way we’ve been playing,” he said. “We’ve encouraged the players to [express themselves] and the big focus has been about making the right decisions. If it’s moving the ball from our 22, then they’ll be encouraged to do that. What we’ve done is we’ve played some really smart rugby.”
Veteran French backrower Imanol Harinordoquy described Wales as “the All Blacks of the North” and fears his squad will be punished tomorrow if they do not play a full 80 minutes with the same passion and pride it displayed in the first half against England in the quarter-finals last weekend.
Harinordoquy was instrumental in France’s 19-12 win, when England rallied from a 16-0 deficit with two second-half tries to get back into the match.
Having been involved in consecutive semi-finals losses in 2003 and 2007, the 31-year-old Harinordoquy is extra wary despite the growing confidence in the French team after it rebounded from a shocking pool-stage loss to Tonga.
Wales are “a very good team full of confidence,” Harinordoquy said. “I haven’t seen any team put them in trouble or unsettle them so far. When they play going forward, they’re a very strong, mobile team with a lot of speed, and strong players in the center.