PARIS (AFP): Ex-Wales full-back Lee Byrne said his former side face a “huge task” on Saturday as they head to defending champions France in the Six Nations.
Les Bleus claimed a record 53-10 victory at Twickenham last weekend and can retain their trophy with a bonus-point win at the Stade de France if Ireland fail to claim a point against England in Dublin later in the day.
Wales’ only victory of the tournament in coach Warren Gatland’s second spell came last weekend in Italy. “A win’s a win, I bet Gatland’s relieved, the players are happy, no wooden spoon,” Byrne told AFP on Tuesday. “There’s no pressure on us at all. “The task ahead is huge and the players will know that.”
Wales’ campaign, and Gatland’s return as head coach, has been marred by off-field issues with a player strike over contract problems cancelled days before the loss to England on February 25. “There’s a lot of change,” Byrne said. “I’m fully behind the players, it’s a short career and one that can be cut short at any moment with injury.
“The (Welsh Rugby) Union, I’m glad they’ve sorted some of it out but there’s a lot more to sort out in the Welsh game,” he added. Squad members had called for the controversial 60-cap minimum Test selection rule for players at foreign clubs to be scrapped as some players face a significant drop in salary if they stay in Wales.
The number was cut to 25, allowing more players to follow in former Clermont full-back Byrne’s footsteps. Byrne won the last of his 47 Test caps at the 2011 Rugby World Cup before a three-year spell in France. “The blessing for me was and wasn’t… I never got selected to play a game for Wales once I went to France,” said Byrne, who now runs coffee and gin companies with fellow former Wales internationals Mike Phillips, James Hook and Shane Williams.
“I was in the squad but never played.” “I was then playing week in week out for Clermont,” he added. Wales fly-half Dan Biggar and former rugby league winger Regan Grace are the only two Welshmen in the Top 14 this term. The likes of lock Will Rowlands, back-rower Ross Moriarty and winger Josh Adams have been linked with clubs in France for next season.
During Byrne’s final campaign at the Stade Marcel-Michelin, he was one of a joint-record seven Welshmen in the French top flight. “You have to buy into it with the supporters, the culture and with the players on and off the field,” he said. “Once you do that you’ll enjoy yourself so much during your time there.”
This weekend in Paris, Gatland will be without the injured Liam Williams, who wears Byrne’s former number 15 shirt. “I would put Josh Adams to 15, put Louis Rees-Zammit and Rio Dyer on the wings,” Byrne said.
“There’s some real pace there, out wide. “We need to move the ball a bit and get the ball into these players’ hands.” Captaining France in Paris will be former World Rugby player of the year Antoine Dupont, who set up a try and was at his influential best during the England rout.
“Player for player, they’re all good,” Byrne said. “Antoine Dupont is on another level. They’re all playing out of their skins at the moment.” “They could be on for the Six Nations, it’s all to play for them,” he added.