PREVIEW: France v Wales

Fri, 17 Mar 2017 07:07
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SIX NATIONS ROUND FIVE: Wales will have the 2019 World Cup on their minds when they conclude their Six Nations campaign against France on Saturday.

Wales suffered at the last World Cup draw, one match too many outside the international window in November 2014 - a narrow loss to Australia - consigning them to a spot outside the world's top eight and a place in a pool which included hosts England and the Wallabies.

A tough group by anyone's standards when you add in Fiji as the fourth team. Eventually, Wales struck lucky and England didn't even make it out of the first-round stage.

Having gone from the threat of dropping out of the top eight again should they have lost last weekend to Ireland - they prevailed with an emphatic 22-9 victory - Wales now seemed poised to grab the world number four spot from France to better their chances of avoiding a tougher pool draw for Japan in 2019, which takes place in the Japanese city of Kyoto on May 10.

Victory for Wales in Paris - and an England victory over Ireland in Dublin - would lift the Welsh into fourth spot, a "large incentive", according to Rob Howley, in charge after Warren Gatland was seconded to the British and Irish Lions for their tour to New Zealand.

"We feel in good shape like we did for the Ireland game and we are looking for a similar result," said Howley.

"We have talked about the opportunity to go fourth in the world, and we are relying on other results to go second in the championship. We are aware of that.

"We have the opportunity to go into the next World Cup ranked fourth in the world. That is a large incentive for players and the coaches."

Wales, with skipper Alun Wyn Jones set to become the first Welshman to start 100 Tests for his country, have won their last five encounters against France - their last loss to Les Bleus came in the contentious 2011 World Cup semifinal defeat when then-captain Sam Warburton was red-carded after 20 minutes.

France, however, currently sit one place ahead of Wales on points difference, in third, having lost to England (16-19) and Ireland (9-19), sandwiched around a victory over Scotland (22-16) before their 40-18 romp over the Italians last weekend.

Wales have also racked up two wins, over Italy (33-7) and Ireland, and two defeats, by England (16-21) and Scotland (13-29).

France coach Guy Noves has made just one change to his starting XV, bringing in lock Sebastien Vahaamahina amid massive disruption on the Top 14 front.

The French rugby world has been turned upside down by this week's announcement of a merger between Parisian arch-rivals Racing 92 and Stade Francais.

With six players from both clubs in the France set-up and four on the teamsheet for Saturday, it has hardly been an ideal build-up, with the LNR, the body governing professional rugby in France, meeting Friday for an all-party parley.

When asked what effect the bombshell news had had on France squad players, Noves replied that he didn't want to "reply to this question".

"I've obviously spoken to my coaching staff about it because we talk about everything that's going on, but honestly, I don't want to add pollution to this game [against Wales]," the former long-time Toulouse coach said.

Like Howley, who named an unchanged team from the Ireland victory, Noves has plumped for consistency.

"We cannot ask to work consistently and end up chopping and changing at any moment," said Noves of his settled team.

"It's not a reward to finish the Six Nations with the same team but a duty.

"The players who have given their best in recent weeks, not talking of those injured and returning players, very much deserve to represent France."

Players to watch:

For France: Wings Virimi Vakatawa and Noa Nakaitaci are a threat out wide, while Brice Dulin makes good decisions at the back. Lock Yoann Maestri is key in the physical exchanges, while No.8 Louis Picamoles is a workhorse around the park.

For Wales: Lock and captain Alun Wyn Jones has been one of the best players in this year's tournament, while loose forward Justin Tipuric has been fantastic at the breakdown in recent matches. Scrumhalf Rhys Webb provides his backline with quick service and George North will surely cause some problems for the French if he gets enough space.

Head to head: Two of the world's best wings, Virimi Vakatawa and George North, will go head to head and they will surely bring some excitement out wide. The flyhalves, Dan Biggar and Camille Lopez, will be key to their teams' chances this weekend, Justin Tipuric and Kevin Gourdon will both be wanting to make their presence felt at the breakdowns.

Recent results:
2016: Wales won 19-10, Cardiff
2015: Wales won 20-13, Paris
2014: Wales won 27-6, Cardiff
2013: Wales won 16-6, Paris
2012: Wales won 16-9, Cardiff
2011: France won 9-8, Auckland (World Cup Pool match)
2011: France won 28-9, Paris
2010: France won 26-20, Cardiff
2009: France won 21-16, Paris
2008: Wales won 29-12, Cardiff

Prediction: Wales looked to have turned the corner with their performance against the Irish. Wales should win by at least 10 points. 

Teams:

France: 15 Brice Dulin, 14 Noa Nakaitaci, 13 Remi Lamerat, 12 Gael Fickou, 11 Virimi Vakatawa, 10 Camille Lopez, 9 Baptiste Serin, 8 Louis Picamoles, 7 Kevin Gourdon, 6 Fabien Sanconnie, 5 Yoann Maestri, 4 Sebastien Vahaamahina, 3 Rabah Slimani, 2 Guilhem Guirado (captain), 1 Cyril Baille.
Replacements: 16 Christopher Tolofua, 17 Uini Atonio, 18 Eddy Ben Arous, 19 Julien Le Devedec, 20 Damien Chouly, 21 Antoine Dupont, 22 Francois Trinh-Duc, 23 Yoann Huget.

Wales: 15 Leigh Halfpenny, 14 George North, 13 Jonathan Davies, 12 Scott Williams, 11 Liam Williams, 10 Dan Biggar, 9 Rhys Webb, 8 Ross Moriarty, 7 Justin Tipuric, 6 Sam Warburton, 5 Alun Wyn Jones (captain), 4 Jake Ball, 3 Tomas Francis, 2 Ken Owens, 1 Rob Evans.
Replacements: 16 Scott Baldwin, 17 Nicky Smith, 18 Samson Lee, 19 Luke Charteris, 20 Taulupe Faletau, 21 Gareth Davies, 22 Sam Davies, 23 Jamie Roberts.

Date: Saturday, March 18
Venue: Stade de France, Paris
Kick-off: 15.45 (14.45 GMT)
Expected weather: It will be partly cloudy with a high 13 and a low of 10 with a slight breeze.
Referee: Wayne Barnes (England)
Assistant referees: Ben O'Keeffe (New Zealand), Matthew Carley (England)
TMO: Peter Fitzgibbon (Ireland)

Agence France-Presse & @rugby365com

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SIX NATIONS
MORE LOGS
Team P W D L Pts
England 5 4 0 1 19
Ireland 5 3 0 2 14
France 5 3 0 2 14
Scotland 5 3 0 2 14
Wales 5 2 0 3 10
Italy 5 0 0 5 0