The World Cup quarter-final is looming, with Wales firm favourites with the bookies to beat a disjointed, and often disorganised France. Robin Davey doesn’t find any reason to disagree and says it all points to north v south in two epic semi-finals.
It’s Le Crunch, with Wales just 80 minutes away from securing a place in the last four of the World Cup, and with it, revenge against France who controversially dumped them out of the 2011 tournament.
Wales will go in to Sunday’s quarter-final as favourites, having won all four of their pool games – one of only two sides to achieve that with hosts Japan being the other – whereas, France have again looked anything but convincing.
In the past, the tag of favourites has never rested easily on Welsh shoulders, successive teams preferring to come in more under the radar, but that surely won’t be the case this time.
For Wales are well aware they’ve beaten their rivals seven times out of the last eight. They also recently achieved a record 14 successive victories during which they rose to the unprecedented heights of number one team in the world.
The experience they’ve gained along the way, aided hugely by the presence of record cap holder and inspirational captain Alun Wyn Jones and the supreme man-management and coaching of Warren Gatland, will stand them in good stead.
Gatland will surely name the same side which achieved such a notable victory over Australia when they played their best rugby for many a day in the opening half, before hanging on grimly in the second period to close out the win.
On fire winger Josh Adams and full back Liam Williams have particular targets within the team ethic.
Adams is the World Cup’s joint top try-scorer having scored five tries in four matches, including a hat-trick against Fiji in another bruising Welsh win. That put him level with Japan opposite number Kotaro Matsushima.
Adams now has in his sights Shane Williams’ Welsh World Cup record of six tries with a possibility, also, of catching the overall tournament record of eight which is shared between Jonah Lomu (1999), Bryan Habana (2007) and Julian Savea (2015). Williams’ total came in 2007.
Liam Williams is aiming to crown a remarkable season with one more trophy -the absolute pinnacle, the Webb Ellis Cup itself.
Since leaving Wales to join Saracens, Williams has been on a huge upward curve, climaxing in this season when he has won the Premiership and European Cup with his club and the Six Nations and Grand Slam with his country.
So what of Sunday’s clash with their Gallic rivals? Resisting the temptation to repeat the age old cliche of not knowing which French team will turn up, let’s just say they’re at best unpredictable.
In recent years they have shown only flashes of their best amid countless stories of rifts between players and coaches while for many the Top 14 seems almost more important than playing for their country.
Veteran No.8 Louis Picamoles says they are determined to play a fast, open game against a Welsh team they believe is slower and more structured.
If they succeed in that approach we will witness a quarter-final cracker with plenty of ebb and flow.
It’s vital that Wales start as they did against Australia rather than against Fiji and rack up some early points to take the sting out of the French.
But the Welsh players – especially the older ones – seem utterly focussed on this one, well aware of the misfortune they suffered against France eight years ago when skipper Sam Warburton was controversially sent off by Irish referee Alain Rolland.
Yet they still almost got through to the final, falling agonisingly short, losing by just a point at 9-8.
While revenge won’t be uppermost in their minds, the incentive will be there all the same and will surely spur them on.
It’s difficult to tell what effect an extra week’s rest will have on France after their final pool match against England was cancelled because of the typhoon which raged in and around Tokyo last weekend.
It could benefit them with players recovering from the inevitable bumps and bruises or it could mean they go in undercooked, lacking a tough encounter the week before a crunch quarter-final.
Either way, Wales need to take the game away from France as early as possible as a deflated France is a beaten France.
Wales ought to make it, and much the same applies to New Zealand against Ireland, the All Blacks remaining the favourites after operating in cruise control so far, even if the Springboks did give them a few early frights.
The other quarter-finals are a bit more difficult to predict. England against Australia, a clash of the old enemies, could be really tight. England lack a really tough game so far, whereas their rivals have had a couple.
This one could be an either or job, and so could the most romantic of the games, the one between Japan and South Africa.
The Japanese endeared themselves to the rest of the world with their heart-warming win against Scotland, playing some breathtaking rugby and all against the backdrop of so many lost lives of their compatriots.
Neutrals will be behind them again and they have beaten their illustrious opponents before, in the last World Cup.
But these Springboks seem a different animal. They appear bigger and better this time around and may well have enough to see off the Japanese.
So, for me, the last four will be Wales, England, New Zealand and South Africa which would set up two classic northern hemisphere v southern hemisphere semi-finals, Wales against the Springboks and England against the All Blacks.
Bring it on!