Saturday’s match between France and Wales in Paris will see two sides determined to right their respective wrongs of the opening weekend of this year’s 6 Nations tournament.
France were sent reeling by a passionate, aggressive and composed Italian side. Their lineout struggled as did their ability to hold on to the ball in contact in the face of such physical defence. The lack of players stepping up in their team, and with Michalak wobbling at the helm at outside half they will be looking for a vast improvement.
Wales were blown away in the opening half at home against Ireland. An inability to retain possession, defensive errors and poor handling saw them place themselves firmly on the back foot, leaving it far too late to launch a fight back. There were glimmers of hope in the second half that showed what this Wales side could be capable of if they can play their rugby at the right tempo.
France make minimal changes to their team that faced Italy. The force of Basareaud comes in at centre and Suta replaces the injured Pape in the second row, with Dusautoir being handed the captaincy.
The French have a squad brimming with talent although it’s puzzling that they have again left Fofana out of position on the wing and have opted to keep Parra on the bench. Both have been outstanding in their respective positions of centre and scrum half for their club Clermont Auvergne all season and both have the potential to turn games on their head.
Michalak will need to improve his composure and control in order to get the French backline functioning, and more consistency is needed in the French set piece if they are to get the ball they want to punish Wales.
Wales’ main improvements need to come from their defensive structure and the commitment and aggression they show at the breakdown. An enforced change of Tipuric at seven, who impressed in the second half last week, due to an injury the Welsh captain Warburton sustained against Ireland will be pleasing to some, yet the loss of their captain is a big blow for Wales. Ryan Jones will captain Wales for a record 30th time as he returns from injury to slot into the back row with Faletau and Tipuric.
The only other change Wales have in their starting lineup is of Hibbard in for Rees at hooker. Doubts have been raised over Gethin Jenkins retaining the loose head shirt ahead of Paul James, with the need of a strong scrum against France being crucial. There are worries over Wales perhaps fielding too light weight a pack to compete with the French, but if their more mobile pack can move the ball quickly enough, and if they can confront the French with as much aggression in defence as the Italians did, it might just be enough for them to get enough of a grasp on the game to press home their own advantages.
An unchanged backline, with many players looking to make amends for mistakes last weekend has the potential to cause the French defence a lot of problems. Handling skills and support lines however will need to be improved if they are to counter balance the dangerous running of the likes of Huget, Mermoz and Fall.
On paper it’s a mouth-watering line up, and after the excitement of the opening 6 Nations weekend, the hope will be that these two sides cut out their errors to meet in a clash of two teams with the players to really put on a display of thrilling rugby.
FRANCE: 15-Huget, 14-Fofana, 13-Bastareaud, 12-Mermoz, 11-Fall, 10-Michalak, 9-Machenaud; 1-Forestier, 2-Szarzewski, 3-Mas, 4-Suta, 5-Maestri, 6-Ouedraogo, 7-Dusautoir, 8-Picamoles.
Replacements : 16-Kayser, 17-Debaty, 18-Ducalon, 19-Taofifenua, 20-Chouly, 21-Parra, 22-Trinh-Duc, 23-Fritz.
WALES : 15-Halfpenny, 14-Cuthbert, 13-Davies, 12-Roberts, 11-North, 10-Biggar, 9-Phillips; 1-Jenkins, 2-Hibbard, 3-A Jones, 4-Coombs, 5-I Evans, 6-R Jones (captain), 7-Tipuric, 8-Faletau.
Replacements : 16-K Owens, 17-P James, 18-Mitchell, 19-Reed, 20-Shingler, 21-L Williams, 22-Hook, 23-S Williams