Back super-fit Welsh to kick French into touch

WALES vs FRANCE

TOMORROW – 9.00AM ITV1

BEFORE the Rugby World Cup got underway, not many would have predicted Wales would still be around at the semi-final stage. However, having seen their thrilling performances and attack-minded approach, fewer still would say they do not deserve to be in the last four.

Wales’ New Zealand-born coach Warren Gatland is relishing every moment and his team’s progression has even put him in the frame to replace Graham Henry as the coach of the All Blacks — a job Gatland would surely love to take. But his task now is to mastermind a victory over France, who silenced the naysayers with a professional display to send England packing.

Although Wales have approached every game looking to score tries, I’d expect this contest to be tight. Key to their victory over Ireland in the quarter-finals was an organised and tireless defensive display.

In the first half of that match, Ireland enjoyed 60% of territory and 57% of possession but the Welsh soaked it all up, conceding just three points. Wales will need to be prepared to do the same again, but France will find fewer holes than they did against England and this suggests a sell of total points at 35 with Sporting Index.

One of the key battles will be between Lions prop Gethin Jenkins and Nicolas Mas, who re-staked his claim as the best tight-head in world rugby when he showed up Matt Stevens in the last round. But Jenkins and his Wales and Lions partner Adam Jones have been outstanding in New Zealand, as have Luke Charteris, Dan Lydiate and captain Sam Warburton behind them.

On paper, it’s a very similar side to that which lost to France 28-9 in the 2011 Six Nations, but there’s been a complete change in attitude and approach among the players. All facets of the Welsh game — the scrum, the lineout, distribution, defence — are working well and I don’t think Les Bleus will be able to cope. Back Gatland’s men to win at 4/5 with Paddy Power.

Pre-tournament preparations in Poland have made Wales not only well drilled, but they also appear to be the fittest team in New Zealand. That will tell against an ageing France side. I can see it being tight in the first half before Wales’ fitness advantage kicks in after the break, and therefore recommend a small bet on the half-time draw/full-time Wales result, available at 18/1 with Ladbrokes.

AUSTRALIA vs NEW ZEALAND

SUNDAY – 9.00AM ITV1

THERE is so much that is encouraging about the All Blacks, yet there are still so many doubts. They have been the most convincing team in the tournament, scoring 36 tries so far, but they are still yet to play a truly testing opponent, drawing a weak Argentina in the quarters while their semi-final opponents Australia were required to come through a bruising encounter with 2007 World Cup winners South Africa.

Then there are the injuries. While third choice fly-half Aaron Cruden is over-the-moon at getting his chance due to the absence of Dan Carter and Colin Slade, the fans at home are mostly concerned that he is a weak link. Mils Muliaina has been forced to finish his international career prematurely, while Richie McCaw is playing on despite a crocked foot.

This result will likely depend on whether the All Black captain is up to the challenge of taking on Wallaby flanker David Pocock. Pocock was nothing short of awesome against the Springboks, and if referee Craig Joubert is lenient in his policing of the breakdown then Australia have a very real chance of an upset. If this area is refereed properly then New Zealand should prevail. It is tricky to call but I do think Australia are lucky to be facing an under-strength All Black side and should get within the seven point handicap, offered at evens with Paddy Power.

With two attacking, running sides such as New Zealand and Australia, you’d expect there to be plenty of tries. Given the talent among the backs, I’m half-tempted to buy shirts at 44 with Sporting Index, but this is a tad too volatile for me. A buy of points at 41 is perhaps more sensible. Only once in the last six meetings between the teams, going back to July 2010, have fewer than 40 points been tallied.

LIVERPOOL vs MANCHESTER UNITED

TOMORROW - 12.45PM SKY SPORTS 2

SIR Alex Ferguson might have been a little relieved that last weekend was an international break, as Manchester United haven’t been at their best in recent weeks. A nervy win at Old Trafford against Norwich came on the back of two draws against Basle and Stoke, and tomorrow’s trip to Anfield is going to provide a stern test.

Liverpool, although not having played particularly well, have won their last two league games and will go into this match with confidence. They have beaten United at home in each of the past three seasons and Kenny Dalglish will be hoping to get the better of the tussle with his fellow Scot once again.
The champions are undoubtedly the stronger of the two sides, but home advantage can count for a lot in this game and the vociferous Anfield support will be trying to wind up Wayne Rooney after his exploits in Montenegro. Ladbrokes have United at 11/8, but I much prefer Paddy Power’s 21/10 about a fourth straight home win for Liverpool against their bitter rivals.

The goals market is particularly interesting in this contest as six of the last seven league meetings between the sides have produced three or more. That sits well with Liverpool’s home record where six of their last 11 hosting top-six opponents have also seen a minimum of three scores; while they are yet to keep a clean sheet at Anfield this season.