sport

Phillips: Show no fear

Mike Phillips has urged Wales to play with "no fear" when they target an odds-defying Six Nations victory against France next Saturday.

But the contrast could hardly be greater between Wales' latest appointment with Les Bleus and what unfolded at the Millennium Stadium almost 11 months ago.

On that occasion 2011 World Cup semi-finalists Wales beat France to be crowned Six Nations champions and Grand Slam winners for the third time in eight years.

Now, though, they are on the canvas, battered by repeated blows to their reputation, having lost eight successive Tests and five in a row at home.

Ireland's Six Nations-opening 30-22 victory saw Wales equal their worst run of home Test match results since they started playing international rugby in 1881, underlining an alarming demise.

With coaching talisman Warren Gatland currently on secondment to the British and Irish Lions, several key players absent through injury and others having lost form, the combined effect points emphatically towards mid-table mediocrity - at best - this season.

"France are a good side and on form, so it is going to be immensely tough, but we've just got to go there with belief and play some rugby," scrum-half Phillips said.

"When we get desperate we tend to play a bit better. We need to have an edge about us from the first whistle and throw everything in.

"We need to back ourselves and come out of our shells and really go for it. It's as simple as that.

"We need to play with no fear from the start. We've got to cut the mistakes out and have the belief."

It is an admirable rallying cry by the Bayonne number nine, and much will be made of Wales scoring 19 unanswered points from 30-3 adrift against Ireland through tries by Alex Cuthbert, Leigh Halfpenny and Craig Mitchell.

But that merely glosses over the true picture. Ireland, led imperiously by the genial Brian O'Driscoll, toyed with Wales during an opening 40 minutes that exposed a painful gulf in class.

"We gave away a lot of penalties in the first-half and couldn't really got our hands on the ball. We couldn't get started," Phillips added.

"First things first, we've got to start better. The game got away from us in the first-half. We were off the boil."

And Halfpenny said: "Every time they got into our 22 they came away with a try or points. When we got into their 22 we failed to take our opportunities.

"But we can't bury our heads in the ground and feel sorry for ourselves. We have to take a long hard look at ourselves in the mirror and dig deep next week. There is a great spirit among the boys."

It is inconceivable that interim head coach Rob Howley can take the same starting XV to Paris. While panic buttons will not be pressed, he also has some huge items on his selection agenda.

Skipper Sam Warburton, especially if Ryan Jones is fit, could find himself on the bench. Ospreys openside flanker Justin Tipuric - brilliant after he went on at half-time - must start at Stade de France, and it is Warburton who might make way.

Howley also has to replace prop Gethin Jenkins with Bath loosehead Paul James, give hooker Richard Hibbard the nod over Matthew Rees if he has recovered from a shoulder problem, consider James Hook instead of fly-half Dan Biggar and look closely at centre Scott Williams' subtle skills.

It might sound like serious surgery, but Wales have now gone past the point of lumbering on with players whose reputations are considerably greater than their current form.

Wales, bizarre as it might sound given the ineptitude of Saturday's first-half showing, can still retain the Six Nations title, yet not if Howley and his fellow coaches are afraid to make some bold calls. Same again in selection is, frankly, unacceptable.

"We always emphasise the point in every Test match that it's important to start well," Warburton said. "Ireland came out flying, and we didn't.

"Walking around the hotel (on Saturday morning) everybody was very upbeat. You can't wait to get started in the Six Nations. There was no lack of confidence at all.

"We will never give up and we go away to France now. Obviously, it's a very tough match, but we'll look forward to it."

The statistics show that Ireland made 75 more tackles than Wales, and the home side enjoyed 63 per cent possession and 65 per cent territory, while also sharing the try-count 3-3.

But reality is that the Wales squad will report for duty on Monday morning on the back of yet another defeat. It has become a depressingly familiar tale.