Preview: France v Wales

Wales will take their place among Rugby League’s elite this Saturday if they can overcome France in Albi to win the Alitalia European Cup (kick-off 2.30pm BST).

The prize is said to be the biggest in international Rugby League as the winner of Saturday’s game will qualify for the 2011 Four Nations tournament and take on England, Australia and New Zealand.

And with the winner set to have at least two games at home in the 2011 tournament, it is a lucrative prize for not only the sport of Rugby League but for the nation as a whole.

Wales will not have hosted any bigger international Rugby League game since the 2000 World Cup and the visits of Australia, New Zealand and possibly England will put the country firmly on the Rugby League map.

Both sides go into the crunch clash on Saturday with similar records in the opening two rounds.

In week one, both sides inflicted hammerings on their Celtic opponents with Wales beating Scotland 60-22 and France giving Ireland a 58-24 drubbing.

Week two’s matches were a lot closer, too close for comfort for Wales as they scraped home 31-30 against Ireland in Neath while the French beat Scotland 26-12 in Albi.

Now it’s Wales’ turn to visit Albi and take on favourites France. The French head the table on points difference so only need a draw to take the trophy but Wales need that win.

To come even this close to a place in the biggest Rugby League competition in the world outside of the World Cup is something that coach Iestyn Harris attributes to all the hard work that has gone on behind the scenes over the last five years at Crusaders, South Wales Scorpions and the Welsh international youth sides.

“We’ve got a fabulous structure in Wales now,” Harris said. “We’ve lots of youngsters playing Rugby League and coming through the system and that’s something that we’ve never had before in Wales.

“We’ve had the days of the mid 1990s with Jonathan Davies, Scott Gibbs and Scott Quinnell and those players in the Welsh set-up, but there was nothing underneath it, no kids coming through and you can’t say that about us now. Against Italy two weeks ago there were 14 or 15 under 21s playing the game and some of them have been brought into the European Cup squad and are doing really well.

“There were a couple of individuals working against the system last week so that was an issue we’ve had to work with. But at the end of the day it’s an international campaign, you don’t get to work with the guys for 12 months, you only get them for two or three weeks so we need to get them as efficient as you can in less than a month!

“We’ve improved as a side every week that we’ve been together. It’ll be tough of us being away from home against a side like France this week, but everyone in this side is up for the challenge and we’re looking forward to the game.”

Wales make just one change to their 20-man squad from last week with Crusaders’ Elliot Kear returning. He replaces Wales‘ record cap holder Ian Watson, who hasn’t taken to the field for Wales since the Italy friendly.

WALES (from): Mark Lennon (Cronulla Sharks), Chris Beasley, Ian Webster (both Central Queensland Comets), Ben Flower, Gareth Thomas, Gil Dudson, Jordan James, Elliot Kear, Lloyd White, Lee Williams (all Crusaders), Ross Divorty (Featherstone Rovers), Danny Jones (Keighley Cougars), Neil Budworth (Mackay Cutters), Andrew Gay, Aled James, Christiaan Roets (all South Wales Scorpions), Jacob Emmitt (St Helens), Lee Briers, Rhys Williams (both Warrington Wolves), Jordan Ross (York City Knights).

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