Preview: Wales v France
SIX NATIONS, ROUND FIVE: Runners-up spot is up for grabs when Wales host France in Saturday's Six Nations finale, with both teams hyped to bring their mixed tournament efforts to a happy ending.
Wales, on 11 points, are currently second behind already-crowned champions Ireland, who play England for the Grand Slam.
France are in fourth on 10 points, with England in third on a better points differential.
A bonus-point win for Wales would ensure the second spot behind the Irish, something not lost on coach Warren Gatland.
"For us, it is important this weekend that we play well at home, get a win and finish second in the table," Gatland said.
"The exciting thing about the championship at the moment is how close it is and how many teams think they are capable of winning it.
"If you look at the championship over the last couple of years, there have been two significant away wins, one was England against Wales in Cardiff last year and the other one the opening game when Ireland beat France in Paris.
"That is the difference between winning the championship and finishing third or fourth."
Gatland recalled captain Alun Wyn Jones in one of seven changes to the team that beat winless Italy 38-14.
"We have picked a team and a squad we believe can deliver this weekend against France," the Kiwi coach said, with Scarlets front rowers Rob Evans and Ken Owens and flanker Josh Navidi also coming back into the pack.
France coach Jacques Brunel made just three changes to the side that held on to beat England 22-16 last week.
"Quiet force" Mathieu Bastareaud will captain France after Guilhem Guirado was ruled out with a knee injury, the latter's hooking spot taken by Adrien Pelissie.
Cedate Gomes Sa takes the place of Rabah Slimani at tighthead prop, while Gael Fickou starts on the right wing, Benjamin Fall moving to full-back in place of injured Hugo Bonneval, who failed a head injury assessment.
"Of course it's a game that can change everything," said Brunel, who sidelined eight players after a controversial alcohol-fuelled drinking session following an opening defeat in Scotland.
"We know the context of the championship. We said that our ambition was to match the best. Up until now, we're not that far off but we know that the result will have a bearing on our search for consistency. The result will either legitimise our ambition or put the brakes on it."
Gatland was under no illusion about what France would bring to the table.
"France have played well all competition. They played well against Ireland in their first game, the first 40-50 minutes against Scotland and were outstanding against England last weekend," he said.
"They were direct, a good defensive team and they are going to be hard for us to break down.
"It is going to be a close encounter and a very physical game."
Gatland added: "For us, it is about working their forward pack, keeping the ball on the pack, working through phases and trying to take their legs away from them.
"It is about taking the Scotland model, they kept playing and the French team ran out of a bit of steam. But they have improved and you could see that in the way they played to the full 80 minutes against England."
Brunel warned that it was a "tough challenge" awaiting his relatively novice French team.
"They are always complicated matches against the Welsh, generally very intense, with very long sequences of play," said the 64-year-old who was forwards coach when France won the Grand Slam with victory in the then-Millennium Stadium in 2002.
"We can't prepare the players for the noise," he said of the traditionally deafening environment in the closed-roof stadium in central Cardiff.
"Even if they've played little in this particular stadium, the players are used to hostile environments away from home. They're able to master that."
Players to watch:
For Wales: George North will surely cause some headaches for the French, while Leigh Halfpenny at fullback and Dan Biggar at flyhalf will have to keep the scoreboard ticking with accurate kicking. In the pack, captain Alun Wyn Jones has not been in his best form however the lock always fulfils his role and adds great value to the side. While last week's captain Taulupe Faletau is always someone to keep an eye on.
For France: Mathieu Bastareaud hard-hitting runs can cause havoc for the Welsh in the middle of the park, while the halfback pairing of flyhalf Francois Trinh-Duc and scrumhalf Maxime Machenaud will be vital to gain an advantage against the Wales side.
Head to head: It is going to be nice see the battle out wide between the two wings George North and Gael Fickou. While the flyhalves Dan Biggar and Francois Trinh-Duc will be vital to their team's chances, while the centre combinations of Scott Williams and Hadleigh Parkes against France's Mathieu Bastareaud and Geoffrey Doumayrou will be something behold in the middle.
2017: France won, 20-19, Paris
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: France's 22-16 win over the England last weekend does place them in a favourable position to cause an upset. However, the Welsh are just too structured especially playing at home. Wales should win this by at least 10 points.
Wales: 15 Leigh Halfpenny, 14 George North, 13 Scott Williams, 12 Hadleigh Parkes, 11 Liam Williams, 10 Dan Biggar, 9 Gareth Davies, 8 Taulupe Faletau, 7 Josh Navidi, 6 Justin Tipuric, 5 Alun Wyn Jones, 4 Cory Hill, 3 Tomas Francis, 2 Ken Owens, 1 Rob Evans
Replacements: 16 Elliot Dee, 17 Nicky Smith, 18 Samson Lee, 19 Bradley Davies, 20 Aaron Shingler, 21 Aled Davies, 22 Gareth Anscombe, 23 Steff Evans
France: 15 Benjamin Fall, 14 Gael Fickou, 13 Mathieu Bastareaud (captain), 12 Geoffrey Doumayrou, 11 Remy Grosso, 10 Francois Trinh-Duc, 9 Maxime Machenaud, 8 Marco Tauleigne, 7 Yacouba Camara, 6 Wenceslas Lauret, 5 Sebastien Vahaamahina, 4 Paul Gabrillagues, 3 Cedate Gomes Sa, 2 Adrien Pelissie, 1 Jefferson Poirot
Replacements: 16 Camille Chat, 17 Dany Priso, 18 Rabah Slimani, 19 Bernard Le Roux, 20 Mathieu Babillot, 21 Baptiste Couilloud, 22 Lionel Beauxis, 23 Geoffrey Palis.
Date: Saturday, March 17
Venue: Millennium, Cardiff
Kick-off: 17.00 (17.00 GMT, 18.00 France time)
Expected weather: Rain and snow expected in Cardiff. A high of 2°C and a low of -2°C.
Referee: Ben O'Keeffe (New Zealand)
Assistant referees: Wayne Barnes (England), Luke Pearce (England)
TMO: George Ayoub (Australia)
Agence France-Presse & @rugby365com