6N Preview: Wales vs France
This is a great opportunity for Wales - a chance to add the Grand Slam to their Triple Crown but France are not going to be easy meat.
For one thing France have made changes that make them look stronger than the team that watched England beat them. They have started with their strongest front row, not gone their perverse way of recent times in starting with the runners and then bring on the scrummers. Now they are starting with William Servat and David Attoub. Secondly they are not starting with ponderous Julien Dupuy at scrumhalf. They look stronger. But they will still have to tackle - and tackling against Wales will be more demanding than tackling against England.
If Ben Morgan and Tom Croft could waltz through the French, what will George North and Alex Cuthbert do, proved to be, with Tommy Bowe, the hardest wings to contain in the Six Nations? Will erratic, slender Clément Poitrenaud, slight Wesley Fofana and slight Alexis Palisson contain North and Cuthbert especially with robust Jonathan Davies, Jamie Roberts and Leigh Halfpenny buzzing about the place? The French centres look stronger than perhaps they are and less penetrative than their counterparts, even Aurélien Rougerie who has had a mediocre Six Nations.
France are going to have to tackle or run the risk of a heavy defeat. One wonders if they can do as well as Italy did last week in containing the wizards of Wales.
Perhaps France's best hope is to bash Wales up front, but that Welsh lot, perhaps no longer miners, are strong men and will not be easily bashed. Further more that have captain Sam Warburton back and he can plunder the tackle as no Frenchman can. Dan Lydiate can speed about to great effect, leaving Thierry Dusautoir to fight a lone battle at the tackle while Julien Bonnaire and Imanol Harinordoquy have their heads in the air. But when the air is at line-outs and kickoffs the French look set fair to dominate.
Wales have the advantage of a settled side while Philippe Saint-André is still chopping and changing, still, it seems, experimenting as the competition closes.
It is, without doubt, an intriguing match and no wonder the whole of Wales is abuzz with excitement and the stocks of Brains SA are piling up.
Players to Watch:
Every Welshman from 11 to 15 - George North, Jamie Roberts, Jonathan Davies, Alex Cuthbert and Leigh Halfpenny. They are all game-breakers, all capable of bucking the bash-bash beliefs of modern rugby.
In the Welsh pack there is the wonderful Toby Faletau who is one of the great revelations of recent times. He has such a wonderful ability to get in the right place and do the right thing with surprising strength and speed. And then you will see square, hirsute Adam Jones.
On France's side there is Wesley Fofana - so fast with a great attacking vision. He is the hope that France will be able to escape the shackles of muscle and find a place for the mercurial likes of Christophe Dominici.
Of France's forwards Thierry Dusautoir, the silent assassin, is always worith watching, often undervalued, and Pascal Papé is having a great season.
Head to Head: Scrumhalves and hookers always have the closest contests and combative, snarling Mike Phillips, who now knows some French, and suave experienced, competitive Dimitri Yachvili could make for interesting and obvious watching.
The contest between the two sets of centres, Jamie Roberts and Jonathan Davies vs Florian Fritz and Aurélien Rougerie, could be a stern and telling one. Then there may well be a telling contest between the two skippers - young Sam Warburton against unforgiving Thierry Dusautoir. There are two thorns in the flesh. Wales have over 74 000 people coming for the match and rain is forecast, but the France, quite miserably, want the roof open, presumably because it may make it easier for them to contain the Welsh backs and they do not care about their own.
Secondly, the French will not be vastly enthusiastic about having Craig Joubert to referee the match. They were cross with him after the World Cup Final.
2011: France won 9-8 at Eden Park, Auckland
2011: France won 28-9 at Stade de France, Paris
2010: France won 26-20 at Millennium Stadium, Cardiff
2009: France won 21-16 at Stade de France, Paris
2008: Wales won 29-12 at Millennium Stadium, Cardiff
2007: France won 34-7 at Millennium Stadium, Cardiff
2007: France won 32-21 at Stade de France, Paris
2006: France won 21-16 at Millennium Stadium, Cardiff
2005: Wales won 24-19 at Stade de France, Paris
2004: France won 29-22 at Millennium Stadium, Cardiff
2003: France won 33-5 at Stade de France, Paris
2002: France won 37-33 at Millennium Stadium, Cardiff
2001: Wales won 43-35 at Stade de France, Paris
Prediction: Look at that litany of Welsh defeats and you would still say: Wales to win by 10 or more. Would you? Yes, not that France are write-offs.
Wales: 15 Leigh Halfpenny, 14 Alex Cuthbert, 13 Jonathan Davies, 12 Jamie Roberts, 11 George North, 10 Rhys Priestland, 9 Michael Phillips, 8 Toby Faletau, 7 Sam Warburton (captain), 6 Dan Lydiate, 5 Ian Evans, 4 Alun-Wyn Jones, 3 Adam Jones, 2 Matthew Rees, 1 Gethin Jenkins.
Replacements: 16 Ken Owens, 17 Paul James, 18 Luke Charteris, 19 Ryan Jones, 20 Lloyd Williams, 21 James Hook, 22 Scott Williams.
France: 15 Clément Poitrenaud, 14 Wesley Fofana, 13 Aurélien Rougerie, 12 Florian Fritz, 11 Alexis Palisson, 10 Lionel Beauxis, 9 Dimitri Yachvili, 8 Julien Bonnaire, 7 Imanol Harinordoquy, 6 Thierry Dusautoir (captain), 5 Yoann Maestri, 4 Pascal Papé, 3 David Attoub, 2 William Servat, 1 Jean-Baptiste Poux.
Replacements: 16 Dimitri Szarzewski, 17 Vincent Debaty, 18 Julien Pierre, 19 Louis Picamoles, 20 Morgan Parra, 21 François Trinh-Duc, 22 Jean-Marcellin Buttin.
Date: Saturday, 17 March 2012
Kick-off: 14.45 (local time)
Venue: Millennium Stadium, Cardiff
Expected weather conditions: 20% chance of rain with a high of 9°C, dropping to 4°C
Referee: Craig Joubert (South Africa)
Assistant referees: Wayne Barnes (England), Stuart Terheege (England)
TMO: Iain Ramage (Scotland)
By Paul Dobson