On Friday night, France will travel to the Millennium Stadium to confront a wounded Welsh side. After being demolished by a tactically superior Ireland, Wales know that only a win will keep their hopes of a historic thirdsuccessive title alive, while the French are looking for their third win of tournament after edging past England and overpowering Italy.
But the Welsh will be playing for more than the championship, after head coach Warren Gatland issued the players with a stark warning that “if they don’t play well on Friday night it could be the last time they play for Wales”.
The home side boasts the bulk of the 2013 British and Irish Lions and the visitors typically thrive in post-Lions campaigns, but France have not beaten Wales since 2011.
Many Welshmen thought they would never live to see the day that Gatland excluded a fully-fit Mike Philips from his starting line up. But Philips will have to come off the bench to win his 83rd cap after being replaced by Rhys Webb.
Webb, who is set to make his first international start, may not fit in to Gatland’s game plan as well as his predecessor, but the Osprey will certainly be an interesting addition to a Welsh side that has been criticised for a rigid game plan, that revolves around Philips.
Luke Charteris returns to the engine room in place of Andrew Coombs, even though Coombs gave an energetic and dynamic display in Ireland. He will pack down alongside Alun Wyn Jones while the Welsh back and front row remain unchanged, although Wales will hope that Gethin Jenkins is actually match fit this week after severely struggling against the Irish despite being mummified by the treatment team.
Rhys Priestland retains the 10 jersey despite having struggled to set his potent backline in motion against Italy and Ireland, but Dan Biggar has been named on the bench and James Hook will also be waiting in the wings. Jamie Roberts will be joined in the midfield by George North, in the absence of the injured Scott Williams. Liam Williams is set to start on the wing.
France coach Philippe Saint-André has made one change to the side that brushed past Italy, ahead of Friday night’s clash, Wenceslas Lauret returning from injury to replace his Racing Metro teammate Bernard Le Roux.
The awesome power of the French front row will fancy their chances against their opposing front three, who struggled against Ireland and Italy. Adam Jones’ chiropractor will have to clear his schedule for the weekend, as Thomas Domingo will be looking to contort his opposite man into submission. The new squeeze scrum is perfectly adapted to Domingo’s flawless technique, while Jones has struggled.
Ireland successfully took the steam out of the Welsh attack by “kicking the leather off the ball” and France will certainly not refrain from putting boot to ball. Should Wales stick to their game plan, the massive French pack will relish the close-quarters physical confrontation, something they all engage in religiously on a weekly basis in the Top 14.
Jean-Marc Doussain is likely to retain the kicking duties despite a shaky display against Italy, but Doussain will be well aware that he cannot afford to squander opportunities, with Leigh Halfpenny in the Welsh ranks.
Front rowers Brice Mach and Vincent Debaty have been called up to the bench, along with Remi Tales. The trio replace Benjamin Kayser, Francois Trinh-Duc and Rabah Slimani, who have dropped out of the match day squad.
All eyes on
Rhys Webb has huge boots to fill, but expect the scrum half to glide and dart with nimble feet on Friday night. The Osprey has the propensity to raise the tempo of the match with his sharp distribution and snipes that will keep the French fringe defence honest. Webb will orchestrate his forwards into some abrasive advances, and his swift service should provide Priestland with the extra seconds that he desperately needs.
Amongst the French ranks, Yannick Nyanga has been the standout performer thus far. The Toulouse loose forward is one of the less-heralded members of their pack, but his performances against England and Italy have been brimming with power and precision, not to mention an insatiable work rate. The Wales flank duo of Lydiate and Warburton will have to significantly up their game to reach Nyanga’s levels.
Head to head: George North v Mathieu Bastareaud
If you are lucky enough to be watching from the stands of the Millennium, on Friday night, ensure that you have a firm grasp on your £5 pint during the seismic collisions between George North and Mathieu Bastereaud.
North is yet to find his stride in this year’s Six Nations, but we have seen glimpses of the Welshman’s destructive capabilities, while his opposite man has also been one of the poorer French performers. Both of these mutant men are renowned for their powerful carries and monstrous hits but the Welshman will be confident that he can utilise his blistering pace to get on the outside of Bastareaud.
This French side possesses many qualities but continuity is not one of them. However, Les Blues are in fine form and their raw power and aggression will test a Welsh side that appear to be short of confidence and imagination. Wales will be determined to reignite their smouldering Six Nations campaign, but will their muscular approach be nullified by the ferocity of the French? While Wales’ superior fitness often proves to be the difference in this fixture, this Welsh side seems extremely jaded. France by 5.
By Nathan Hyde (@NathanHyde2)