While Wales counted who was fit in the squad to play Fiji in Cardiff, France casually rotated its squad to meet Canada in Milton Keynes as both sides look for a third consecutive win at the Rugby World Cup on Thursday.
Coach Philippe Saint-Andre has built a reputation for tinkering incessantly with France, and appears to have no intention of slowing down here, after using every player in his squad against Italy and Romania. Except this time, rather than changing players on a tactical whim, he’s doing it to keep fringe players sharp if they’re needed later in the tournament.
“We’re lucky enough to have used all 31 players,” he said. “You can see with all the injuries since the start of the tournament that a No. 3 player might be decisive one day.”
Wales needs little reminding of that, and there will be some unfamiliar faces on show at Millennium Stadium.
When Warren Gatland unveiled his lineup, there were three injury-enforced changes to his depleted back division. Fullback Matthew Morgan, center Tyler Morgan, and winger Alex Cuthbert came into a backline that lost Scott Williams and Hallam Amos to tournament-ending injuries in Saturday’s thrilling 28-25 win over England.
Williams and Amos became the fifth and sixth Welsh backs ruled out of the World Cup this month, while fullback Liam Williams was unavailable against Fiji after a head knock against England.
“I was talking to Prav (Mathema), our physio, yesterday and he said it was probably the worst run of injuries he’s been involved with as a team,” Gatland said.
Although his forwards are holding up better — he has kept the same pack that defied England — props Aaron Jarvis and Samson Lee were still getting over calf problems.
A Wales victory over Fiji would likely mean England has to beat Australia to stay in the tournament, and stop the Welsh from qualifying with a match to spare.
Fiji and Canada have lost their first two matches, and still hold out of hope of third place in their pools.
“It automatically qualifies you for the next World Cup,” said Fiji coach John McKee, whose side has lost to England 35-11 and Australia 28-13. “So there’s still a lot for us to play for.”
Here’s a look at Thursday’s games:
WALES vs FIJI (8-1-1 overall, 1-1 in RWC), Cardiff, 1545 GMT
The Welsh are fielding their strongest side not only to rack the win that could advance them to the quarterfinals, but also to right some wrongs in the win over England.
Wales’ scrum did not fare well against England, being penalized four times at nine put-ins. Loosehead prop Gethin Jenkins was pinged twice, and tighthead Tomas France once, and his replacement Samson Lee once.
“The problems are 100 percent fixable,” Lee promised.
He said it was their own fault for losing most of the hits in the scrum, and ending up soaking up hits, so the need this week is to get their speed right on engagement.
Fiji’s scrum performance against England and Australia has been an unexpected boost, prompting Lee to believe this game “will be really tough.”
FRANCE vs. CANADA (7-1 overall, 3-0 in RWC), Milton Keynes, 1900 GMT
France will field a newcomer on one wing and a fullback on the other. Right winger Remy Grosso makes his test debut, one of 12 changes to the side that beat Romania 38-11. Brice Dulin will be on the left, only his second start there in a 21-test career.
Those selections should take some attention away from explosive center Wesley Fofana, the player France is pinning its hopes on at this tournament. Fofana is looking forward to pitting himself against Clermont clubmate Jamie Cudmore, Canada’s hot-tempered lock.
“If all Canadians play like him, we’ll have something to worry about,” Fofana said. “I am not going to send him text messages, I’ll leave him alone. It’s dangerous to tease him too much.”
Canada’s hopes have been made more difficult by the short turnaround from Saturday’s game against Italy, while France has enjoyed a full week of preparations. Still, coach Kieran Crowley remains defiant.
“People keep patting you on the back and saying ‘good performance’ and all that, but we’re here to win, not just play the games,” he said.