PREVIEW: France v Wales
SIX NATIONS ROUND ONE: Wales will bid to equal their longest winning sequence since 1999 when they take on France in Friday’s opening game of the tournament, Warren Gatland’s last campaign as Welsh coach.
With a favourable fixture list that sees them host England and defending Grand Slam champions Ireland, an experienced Wales side is expected to mount a serious challenge for a third title under Gatland, having won the Grand Slam in 2008 – his first year in charge – and 2012.
Gatland’s team have racked up nine victories on the trot. A win on Friday would take them to 10, a feat previously achieved when former All Blacks coach Graham Henry was in charge.
The all-time Wales winning run is 11 Tests, set between 1907 and 1910.
“It is a nice record to have of nine wins in a row but you want to create your own history as players,” Wales’ Kiwi centre Hadleigh Parkes said in his BBC column.
“Also you want to achieve things for the management because, for a lot of them this will be their last Six Nations campaign.”
Gatland said he was “excited” by his final Six Nations campaign, although he will still lead Wales to the Rugby World Cup in Japan before handing over the reins to fellow New Zealander Wayne Pivac, currently coaching Scarlets.
“It’s a big year for us, so you’ve got to be up for that. And not just me, the other coaches as well,” said Gatland, who took over Wales following their disastrous showing in the 2007 World Cup and has led them to third in the world rankings behind New Zealand and Ireland.
“We are all pretty conscious of this being our last Six Nations and wanting to do well.”
Gatland, whose side will be captained once more by veteran second row forward Alun Wyn Jones, added: “We have a great deal of experience across the team and on the bench, and we want to kick things off well on Friday.”
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Players to watch
For France: South African man mountain Paul Willemse (RPI 77) will finally make his debut for Les Bleus at lock. Willemse received a French passport in November, after arriving in France in 2014 and will become the 11th South African-born player to turn out for France. Also making his debut and facing a baptism of fire in midfield will be Romain Ntamack (RPI 85), the 19-year-old son of emblematic ex-France back Emile. Ntamack is preferred to vice-captain and defensive lynchpin Mathieu Bastareaud, who doesn’t even make the replacements’ bench. The selection of Ntamack, whose explosiveness has helped propel Toulouse to number one spot in the Top 14, hints at a desire for a more dynamic gameplan. And on paper, the side oozes appeal. The question is whether the French side, with Morgan Parra (RPI 80) bossing things from scrumhalf, will cope with Wales’ proven, teak-tough rush defence.
For Wales: Warren Gatland has brought in Tomos Williams (RPI 79) to start at scrumhalf, with Kiwi-born Cardiff teammate Gareth Anscombe (RPI 82) at No.10 and Dan Biggar named on the bench. Two other changes from the side that beat South Africa in November see Cardiff flank Josh Navidi (RPI 77) return, after missing all of the November Tests because of injury, while Scarlets prop Rob Evans replaces Nicky Smith.
Head to head: South African-born Paul Willemse will make his Test debut and will face 129-time international lock Alun-Wyn Jones. Both measure more than 195-centimetres in height but are on opposite ends of the experience scale in international rugby. Jones, 33, skippers Wales and led the Lions to their first series victory since 1997 in Australia six years ago, when Willemse was about to start his third Currie Cup campaign with the Blue Bulls. Since arriving in Grenoble in 2014 and then moving to Montpellier the season after, the powerful second row forward has amassed more than 90 appearances in all competitions but it pales into comparison when put up against Jones’ experience who will join Ronan O’Gara in seventh place on 130 on the all-time caps list. Another Test debutant comes in the shape of Les Bleus’ 19-year-old inside centre Romain Ntamack, who will have to deal with hard-running, Kiwi-born Hadleigh Parkes. Ntamack, son of former international Emile, has been pivotal in guiding Toulouse to top spot in the Top 14 and the Champions Cup quarter-finals, scoring five tries, a matter of months after lifting the junior world championship on home soil. Outside him will be Clermont’s Wesley Fofana who announced earlier this week he will be retiring at the end of the Rugby World Cup in November. Fofana has a familiar face across from him in the Welsh No.13 shirt in Jonathan Davies. The pair were partners for two years at Clermont, reaching finals on both the domestic and European fronts. France traditionally give their scrumhalves the keys to boss the team around the field and Morgan Parra has the perfect profile to do so. The vocal Clermont No.9 controls matches with a direct kicking game and is also proficient from the tee, the 30-year-old having notched up 367 points in his 69 Tests. Tomos Williams, like replacement Gareth Davies, is very much in the mould of a traditional Welsh No.9. He zips passes from the base of rucks and he has an unique way of picking support lines by short-cutting across field. It will be 24-year-old Williams’ seventh appearance for Wales, after he made his debut against South Africa in Washington during last year’s tour and his Six Nations debut. He will not find a tougher competitor than Parra.
2018: Wales won 14-13, Cardiff
2017: France won 20-18, 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 semifinal)
2011: France won 28-9, Paris
2010: France won 26-20, Cardiff
Prediction: These two sides have faced each other 89 times, with three draws and Wales having the slight advantage of 46 wins to France’s 40. Wales prevailed in this fixture last year in Cardiff, 14-13, while France won the reverse fixture in 2017 – a captivating 20-18 victory. The bookmakers can’t separate the two teams – with good reason. France have the home ground advantage, but we fancy Wales to sneak a win – by five points or less – with a late score.
France: 15 Maxime Medard, 14 Damian Penaud, 13 Wesley Fofana, 12 Romain Ntamack, 11 Yoann Huget, 10 Camille Lopez, 9 Morgan Parra, 8 Louis Picamoles, 7 Arthur Iturria, 6 Wenceslas Lauret, 5 Paul Willemse, 4 Sebastien Vahaamahina, 3 Uini Atonio, 2 Guilhem Guirado (captain), 1 Jefferson Poirot.
Replacements: 16 Julien Marchand, 17 Dany Priso, 18 Demba Bamba, 19 Felix Lambey, 20 Gregory Alldritt, 21 Baptiste Serin, 22 Gael Fickou, 23 Geoffrey Doumayrou.
Wales: 15 Liam Williams, 14 George North, 13 Jonathan Davies, 12 Hadleigh Parkes, 11 Josh Adams, 10 Gareth Anscombe, 9 Tomos Williams, 8 Ross Moriarty, 7 Justin Tipuric, 6 Josh Navidi, 5 Alun Wyn Jones (captain), 4 Adam Beard, 3 Tomas Francis, 2 Ken Owens, 1 Rob Evans
Replacements: 16 Elliot Dee, 17 Wyn Jones, 18 Samson Lee, 19 Cory Hill, 20 Aaron Wainwright, 21 Gareth Davies, 22 Dan Biggar, 23 Owen Watkin.
Date: Friday, February 1
Venue: Stade de France, Paris
Kick-off: 21.00 (20.00 UK & Ireland time; 20.00 GMT)
Referee: Wayne Barnes (England)
Assistant referees: Matthew Carley (England), Brendon Pickerill (New Zealand)
TMO: Rowan Kitt (England)