France v Wales: Six Nations preview as Les Blues to break the trend and claim a big win over Warren Gatland’s men
France and Wales close off their Six Nations campaigns on Super Saturday in Paris following wins in Round Four of the Championship.
This fixture is sandwiched between the opening game in Edinburgh and the finale at the Aviva Stadium, meaning that if France defeats Wales, they will have a nervous wait to know if they have defended their title.
The reigning champions return home after one of their most memorable Six Nations performances. Fabien Galthie‘s charges ran in seven tries to claim a fantastic 53-10 victory at Twickenham.
Before that result, Les Bleus secured a 32-21 win over Scotland in an entertaining seven-try and two-red-card clash.
Their title defence started with a shaky 29-24 win over Italy before falling to a 32-19 defeat at the hands of Ireland in the second round, a loss that may lead to them relinquishing the title.
Meanwhile, Warren Gatland endured a torrid start to his return to the helm of Welsh Rugby. They started their campaign with three straight defeats, a Six Nations first for Gatland but a third in the side’s history (2003 and 2007).
An opening-day defeat to Ireland (34-10) was expected, but the margin of the loss to Scotland (35-7) caught many by surprise as the contract row between the WRU, regions and players took its toll on the team. The records continued to tumble in Round Three as Wales lost to England (20-10) in Cardiff for the first time since 2017. However, Wales finally got off the mark last weekend, defeating Italy 29-17 in Rome.
It’s number two in the world versus number nine, and while recent encounters between the two sides have been closely fought, Saturday’s meeting could be entirely different.
Where the game will be won
France will fancy their chances against a struggling Welsh side, but as mentioned above, recent fixtures between the two teams have been tight matches.
The Azzurri’s shortcomings in the kicking battle aided Wales’ improved showing, but Gatland’s side performed far better in this area of the game than they have been all tournament. As for Les Bleus, their kicking game continues to be one of the best in the world, and it showed against England as they continuously pressurised Steve Borthwick’s charges through the boots of Antoine Dupont, Romain Ntamack and Thomas Ramos.
We can expect the kicking duel to play its part in the match’s outcome, but the result will come down to accuracy, more specifically at the breakdown.
One of Wales’ biggest stumbling blocks this Six Nations has been their inability to take their opportunities on attack. While they posted an improved 2.4 points per visit to the Italian 22 last time out, that number still needs to be higher to be competitive against Les Bleus.
To make matters worse, they come up against a side that produced a breakdown domination job on England and could do the same to Wales this week.
0-3 seconds is the sweet spot for most Test teams to attack effectively, and France limited England to just 66.2 per cent of their rucks, meeting that threshold, but more importantly, 16.2 per cent of the time, England’s recycle speed was over six seconds. That was more than enough time for the Shaun Edwards drilled defence to realign and smother any attack thrown at them, winning the gain line battle and the aerial one. 74.2 per cent of the time, France managed a ruck recycle speed of 0-3 seconds, a tally unmatched in Round Four.
Conversely, Wales are on the other end of the statistic, with 26.1 per cent of their rucks taking over six seconds to recycle and 15.2 per cent taking between three and six seconds. This a worrying stat for any team, but even more so when having to line up against a team brimming with breakdown beasts like Julien Marchand, Francois Cros and Gregory Alldritt.
Last time they met
What they said
Wales assistant coach Alex King has highlighted the physical battle that awaits his side on Saturday. While he was unwilling to disclose any tactics publicly, he said that Wales have a plan to combat France.
“They are incredibly physical. It was an area they won hands-down against England. I don’t think England had an area in the game where they could get a foothold,” he said.
“We are going to learn from that game. I am not going to give too much away in the interview, but we will have a plan, and it is up to us to get it right and execute it on Saturday.”
Meanwhile, Gatland was in a sentimental mood when commenting on his team to face France, with the head coach saying that eight players could be playing in the Six Nations for the final time.
“If I look at the squad, going through it, there are up to eight players in there who are potentially playing their last Six Nations game,” the Wales head coach said.
“The message to them who might be playing their last Six Nations game is to enjoy the occasion and the moment. For a lot of them, it might be the last time they do that.”
Meanwhile, France head coach Galthie emphasises that Wales still pose a threat to his side despite their recent form.
“This Welsh team, two years ago, was two minutes away from winning the Grand Slam at home. Two seasons is not that long ago; there are players in this team who have won the Grand Slam three times and won the tournament five times. Whatever happens, the Welsh players put their bodies on the line and give it everything, everything, everything. For a very long time, they dominated France,” he said.
While he admitted that the win over England gave his side confidence, there is still room for improvement.
“The Twickenham match gave us a lot of satisfaction; we must not hide it. But we also saw points for improvement. We can play better with the ball and without the ball. Our players can transition better,” he added.
Players to watch
It’s been a hugely successful tournament for Toulouse full-back Thomas Ramos, who has maintained a stronghold on the starting number 15 jumper this tournament. In a position where France have regularly made changes, Ramos has settled the debate. He has kicked superbly in open play and off the tee and easily leads the scoring charts with 68 points, more than double that of Finn Russell in second place with 32.
In recent weeks, Francois Cros has shown just how much France missed him after last year’s Grand Slam, with the flanker absent for the July and November internationals. With the engine that will make a Land Rover Discovery blush, Cros gets through a ridiculous amount of work around the pitch, flying into tackles, immediately getting back to his feet and competing in the ruck. It’s not just how much work he gets through that makes him an incredible player, but how accurately and physically he does it. If Wales have any hope of winning this one, keeping Cros quiet should be a priority.
There are so many other brilliant Les Bleus forwards to keep an eye on, but our final pick goes to the man dubbed ‘quatrième troisième ligne!’ aka France’s fourth flanker, Jonathan Danty. The France squad is brimming with superstars and top-class replacements, but Danty’s performance against England was a testament to how crucial he is to their success. He landed a thunderous hit early on at Twickenham, setting the tone for his performance which featured bulldozing runs into the wall of white jerseys, breakdown brilliance and outstanding defence alongside the evergreen Gael Fickou.
The absence of Liam Williams opens the door for Louis Rees-Zammit to have a crack at full-back in the red jersey. It’s a tremendous show of faith from Gatland, who has backed the 22-year-old in the starting role ahead of Leigh Halfpenny. Rees-Zammit has filled in the position before but has a huge task on his hands as he fronts up against one of the best-kicking teams in the world. Perhaps Wales are planning to use his tremendous pace to sprint back at the Les Bleus defence, much like the Springboks did last November. If that is the case, it will be extremely entertaining to see the Welshman in space.
This may be the final time we see Alun Wyn Jones in a Six Nations match. The veteran lock celebrates his 38th birthday ahead of the Rugby World Cup, and while he hasn’t explicitly said this will be his final game, it is a fair assumption. The most capped player in Test rugby continues to defy the odds and produces at the highest level, and while many believe he is off the pace, he is far more up to speed than he is given credit for – a true legend of the game and one worth celebrating this weekend.
After not making a single matchday 23 this Six Nations, Aaron Wainwright is elevated into the starting line-up for Saturday’s encounter. A talented, hard-working and versatile back-rower, Wainwright has a whole box of tricks ready to fire at the French. With the opportunity to stake his claim for more starting minutes, expect the 25-year-old – held in high regard by Gatland – to showcase what he can do.
Browsing over the teamsheets, two clear head-to-heads jump off the page, with the first being the half-back battle between a rejuvenated Rhys Webb and the utterly mind-blowing Dupont. Webb rolled back the years against Italy and looked to be back at his best for Wales, while Dupont has been the form half-back this world cup cycle.
However, the main event is the battle of the number eights between Les Bleus’ Gregory Alldritt and Wales’ Taulupe Faletau.
In the earlier rounds of the tournament, Alldritt looked fatigued and a bit off-colour for France, but any doubts over his output for France were put to be against England. In a jampacked 80-minute shift, he topped the carries for his side and gained more metres than any other forward at Twickenham. While England struggled to contain him with ball in hand, he was just as potent without the ball thundering into tackles and winning two turnovers as France tormented the English pack.
His opponent this weekend had an uncharacteristically slow start to the Championship, but we also saw the best of the world-class Faletau against the Azzurri. Much like Alldritt against England, Faletau led the way with ball in hand, making more carries and metres than any other Welsh forward. He weighed in with 12 tackles and grabbed a try against the Italians. Saturday’s game marks a milestone for the veteran who earns his 100th Test cap for his country. He is another player worth celebrating for his consistently high-quality performances over the last decade in Wales and Lions red.
While France are hot favourites heading into the match, the two number eights will be crucial in the battle for momentum, both generating and stalling it.
Gatland’s side have put the contract row with the Welsh Rugby Union behind them and were able to focus fully on the on-field issues this week and last. That paid immediate dividends against the Italians in Round Four, but they face an entirely different beast this weekend in a title-chasing Les Bleus. The outcome of France’s campaign is not entirely in their control as they need Ireland to lose, but their first task will be knocking over Wales. Something they are well equipped to achieve and should do. The notable improvements from Wales in some areas of the game will please the Welsh coaching staff, but it won’t be enough to defeat Galthie’s titans. France to win by more than 15.
2022: France won 13-9 in Cardiff
2021: France won 32-30 in Paris
2020: France won 38-21 in Paris
2020: France won 27-23 in Cardiff
2019: Wales won 20-19 in Oita (RWC quarter-final)
2019: Wales won 24-19 in Paris
2018: Wales won 14-13 in Cardiff
2017: France won 20-18 in Paris
France: 15 Thomas Ramos, 14 Damian Penaud, 13 Gael Fickou, 12 Jonathan Danty, 11 Ethan Dumortier, 10 Romain Ntamack, 9 Antoine Dupont (c), 8 Gregory Alldritt, 7 Charles Ollivon, 6 Francois Cros, 5 Romain Taofifénua, 4 Thibaud Flament, 3 Uini Atonio, 2 Julien Marchand, 1 Cyril Baille
Replacements: 16 Peato Mauvaka, 17 Reda Wardi, 18 Sipili Falatea, 19 Bastien Chalureau, 20 Seckou Macalou, 21 Maxime Lucu, 22 Yoram Moefana, 23 Melvyn Jaminet
Wales: 15 Louis Rees-Zammit, 14 Josh Adams, 13 George North, 12 Nick Tompkins, 11 Rio Dyer, 10 Dan Biggar, 9 Rhys Webb, 8 Taulupe Faletau, 7 Justin Tipuric, 6 Aaron Wainwright, 5 Alun Wyn Jones, 4 Adam Beard, 3 Tomas Francis, 2 Ken Owens (c), 1 Wyn Jones
Replacements: 16 Bradley Roberts, 17 Gareth Thomas, 18 Dillon Lewis, 19 Dafydd Jenkins, 20 Tommy Reffell, 21 Tomos Williams, 22 Owen Williams, 23 Leigh Halfpenny
Date: Saturday, March 18
Venue: Stade de France
Kick-off: 14:45 GMT
Referee: Nic Berry (Australia)
Assistant Referees: Andrew Brace (England), Christophe Ridley (Ireland)
TMO: Joy Neville (Ireland)
READ MORE: France v Wales: Winners and losers from the team announcements for the final round of the Six Nations
The article France v Wales: Six Nations preview as Les Blues to break the trend and claim a big win over Warren Gatland’s men appeared first on Planetrugby.com.