Preview: Wales v France
France are strutting cockahoop while Wales wallow. After all France have won both of their Six Nations matches, while Wales were thrashed last time out.
Not that Wales would normally wallow long and France are unlikely to be overconfident.
France beat England who looked better than they did and they beat Italy with a burst of 21 points from three tries early in the second half. Both of those matches were at home whereas this one will be away. Not that the playing surface at Millennium Stadium, closed roof notwithstanding, will be better than the playing surface at Stade de France.
Both sides have beaten Italy – Wales 23-15 in Cardiff and France 30-15 in Paris. France scored three tries to one but battled for most of the second half for a score that possibly flattered them. Wales and Italy each scored two tries in their match. In both matches Italy struggled for want of an adequate goal-kicker.
There is a belief that France always wins in the aftermath of a British & Irish Lions tour.
There was no such tradition before 1997 as between World War II and 1997 it happened only twice. But it has been true since then – in 1998, 2002, 2006 and 2010. If the effect of a Lions' tour has a debilitating effect it should be a lot worse for Wales who had 15 of the 37 tourists and 10 players in the third, deciding Test which the Lions won so comfortably 41-16.
On present form and in keeping with the aftermaths of the last four Lions' tours, France should stay cockahoop on Friday night.
Wales has to overcome France and also the demoralising effect of Welsh Rugby Union's decisions which have affected professional players in the country. Of Friday's 23, seven already play in other countries and others will follow next season.
France has a particularly settled side with only one change from the team that beat Italy. Good flank Wenceslas Lauret comes in to replace South African Bernard le Roux, who drops out altogether. France has made changes to the bench where Brice Mach comes in for injured Benjamin Kayser, big Belgian Vincent Debaty for suspended Rabah Slimani who was sent off against Italy and Rémi Talès, fit again, for François Trinh-Duc.
Injury played a part in some of the Welsh changes. Luke Charteris is back in the side after his hamstring injury, replacing Andrew Coombs, and Scott Williams is out of the side because of injury. As he did against Australia in November, George North moves to centre. giving Wales a huge centre pairing. Luke Williams comes in on the wing in place of North. Not injury related but certainly behaviour related, belligerent Mike Phillips who drops to the bench while Rhys Webb moves off the bench to start. The change may well make for quicker thinking and clearing and less kicking, apart from improved behaviour.
Goal-kicking is always a crucial part of the game . Here Wales have Leigh Halfpenny, one of the very best goal kickers in the world, while Jean-Marc Doussain is also no slouch. Halfpenny probably has the edge but much depends on how the team creates opportunities – in other words in which half they 'get' the penalties.
Wales may play a different kind of game and we could well have the sight of two sets of creative back running at each other, two sets of creative loose forwards making life happier for the backs and two competitive tight fives going at it hammer and tongs. Much will depend on the make-up of the Welsh minds. If it gets mind, heart and sinew working in unison, they could well win this match.
What the effect of the weather will be on crowd attendance is doubtful but you would not be keen to drive through filthy weather from Aberystwith and back on a Friday. Still the rugby heart of Wales from Llanelli to Newport and up to Neath is not a long way from Cardiff and it may well be a relief to be warmly housed watching Wales play and singing Land of My and Bread of Heaven with heads thrown back and mouths wide open. They are tough people, the Welsh.
This may well be the last match that great referee Alain Rolland of Ireland will be refereeing before slipping off into retirement. It will be his 69th Test in an illustrious career – a rarity as an international player who became an international referee. He will be 48 in August, nearly six years older than the next oldest of current international referees, Steve Walsh of Australia.
Players to Watch
For Wales: its outside backs above all – little Leigh Halfpenny who is an outstanding fullback, Alex Cuthbert and the centres Jamie Roberts and George North.
For France: Also their outside backs, including Mathieu Bastareaud who provides opportunities for others. In the pack there is above all robust Louis Picamoles to catch the eye.
Head to Head: They are far apart but both could have an impact on the game – Leigh Halfpenny of Wales and speedy, slippery Brice Dulin of France. At hooker there could be a tough contest with two fine warriors whose influence goes beyond scrumming and line-out throws – Richard Hibbard of Wales and Dimitri Szarzewski of France. At centre you have strong, direct Jamie Roberts, now playing his club rugby in France, and opportunistic Wesley Fofana who is hard to get a hold of. Liam Williams of Wales is likely to have his hands full with Yoann Huget of France who has been in brilliant form in the Six Nations so far. Both sides have strong ball-carriers at No.8 – Taulupe Faletau of Wales and Louis Picamoles of France. Tall Luke Charteris of Wales against powerful Pascal Papé of France in the line-outs. There is also the contest at half back where Jules Plisson and Jean-Marc Doussain of France may have it over more staid Rhys Priestland and rookie Rhys Webb of Wales. There will be a battle in the front rows where Nicolas Mas may well be able to dominate Gethin Jenkins of Wales and Adam Jones of Wales may well give Thomas Domingo of France a tough time.
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
2009: France won 21-16, Paris
2008: Wales won 29-12, Cardiff
2007: France won 34-7, Cardiff
2007: France won 32-21, Paris
Prediction: Last round's matches suggest that France will win handsomely, and yet …. Proud Wales may just decide that they owe it to the Principality, battered by storms, to give their people something to cheer about – and cheer and sing they will on that cold night in Cardiff with the roof closed in defiance of the weather. Our prediction – Wales to win by about four points in a thriller.
Wales: 15 Leigh Halfpenny, 14 Alex Cuthbert, 13 George North, 12 Jamie Roberts, 11 Liam Williams, 10 Rhys Priestland, 9 Rhys Webb, 8 Taulupe Faletau, 7 Sam Warburton (captain), 6 Dan Lydiate, 5 Alun Wyn Jones, 4 Luke Charteris, 3 Adam Jones, 2 Richard Hibbard, 1 Gethin Jenkins.
Replacements: 16 Ken Owens, 17 Paul James, 18 Rhodri Jones, 19 Jake Ball, 20 Justin Tipuric, 21 Mike Phillips, 22 Dan Biggar, 23 James Hook.
France: 15 Brice Dulin, 14 Yoann Huget, 13 Mathieu Bastareaud, 12 Wesley Fofana, 11 Hugo Bonneval, 10 Jules Plisson, 9 Jean-Marc Doussain, 8 Louis Picamoles, 7 Wenceslas Lauret, 6 Yannick Nyanga, 5 Yoann Maestri 4 Pascal Papé (captain), 3 Nicolas Mas, 2 Dimitri Szarzewski, 1 Thomas Domingo.
Replacements: 16 Brice Mach, 17 Yannick Forrestier, 18 Vincent Debaty , 19 Sébastien Vahaamahina, 20 Damien Chouly, 21 Maxime Machenaud, 22 Rémi Talès, 23 Gael Fickou.
Date: Friday, February 21
Venue: Millennium Stadium, Cardiff
Kick-off: 20.00 (20.00 GMT; 21.00 French time)
Expected weather: The weather does not affect the match as it's roof is likely to be closed but it can affect getting to the ground. The forecast if a 40 percent chance of rain on a cold day with a high of 8°C and a low of 6°C
Referee: Alain Rolland (Ireland)
Assistant referees: John Lacey (Ireland), Dudley Phillips (Ireland)
TMO: Graham Hughes (England)
By Paul Dobson