It’s almost time for the talking to stop, the predictions to be filed away and the actual rugby to take centre stage. And there is no better place to kick off the 2019 Six Nations than the Stade de France under Friday night lights.
Hosts France will want to lay down a marker at the beginning of a Rugby World Cup year and the scalp of Wales, on a nine-match winning run, would be a considerable cockerel feather in their collective cap. Their visitors will be determined to produce something special in Warren Gatland’s final Championship as coach and an away win in Paris would be a set them up for a Grand Slam challenge.
Coach vs Coach
Going into this year’s Championship it is fair to say that the jury is out for France and their coach Jacques Brunel. The former Italy boss has been in charge for just over a year but is yet to find a winning formula or consistent selection.
He may well have cursed the Six Nations fixture computer as he attempts to find one, too. In seven Tests coaching Italy and France against Wales, Brunel has masterminded a grand total of zero wins – although Les Bleus lost by a solitary point in Cardiff last season.
By contrast Warren Gatland appears to have rediscovered his midas touch going into his final year as Wales boss. Wales are currently on a nine-match winning run and have won seven of their 12 encounters with Les Bleus since their Kiwi coach took charge 11 years ago.
It quite possibly should have been eight as following 21 minutes of time added in Paris two years ago, Wales were a turnover away from securing a third successive victory at the Stade de France.
Gatland will be confident of making it three out of four on Friday night.
Player vs Player
The headline news of France’s team announcement was the sheer size of the forward pack selected by Brunel. To put it bluntly, Les Bleus have opted for brute force in Paris.
In total the French forwards weigh in at a combined 962kg and their heft is best summed up by the fact that 6-foot-2 back-row Wenceslas Lauret is the lightest member of the ample eight, weighing in at 103kg – or over 16 stone.
Wales’ front-row will come under particular scrutiny as the diminutive captain and hooker Guilhem Guirado lines up between Jefferson Poirot and Uini Atonio. France will look to grind their visitors into submission – as they did in the 99th minute two years ago – and Rob Evans , back in the side in place of the injured Nicky Smith, and Tomas Francis are sure to be busy. According to the RPI, France have the collective edge here – 238 to 231.
Behind their brutish scrum, Les Bleus have gone for finesse. Romain Ntamack has been preferred to Mathieu Bastareaud, suggesting that Les Bleus will look to move the Welsh centre axis of Hadleigh Parkes and Jonathan Davies around the park.
Meanwhile, Two club partnerships go head-to-head at half-back as Morgan Parra and Camille Lopez look to use their experience against Tomos Williams (), making his Six Nations debut, and Gareth Anscombe on only his second Championship start at fly-half. But Wales have the upper hand here according to the RPI, 163 to 157.
Gatland has picked the strongest back division he has available, but what might swing the contest in Wales’ favour is the quality of replacements at his disposal. France will not enjoy watching Samson Lee, Aaron Wainwright, Davies and Dan Biggar (with a combined RPI of 283) rise from the bench in the final quarter.
Not even the most ardent member of the front-row union would have enjoyed watching 19 minutes of increasingly arduous scrummaging that signalled the end of the last meeting between these two sides in Paris. It is not often that a player can be sent to the sin bin with time up and return to the field with his side still frantically, farcically defending their line.
Editors from South Wales to northern France will hope things can be sorted out in regulation time with deadlines pressing on Friday night, but you can be sure the scrum will play as integral a role again.
An ankle injury to Nicky Smith has opened the door to Evans once again but his inclusion in no way weakens the Welsh front-row. It is not so long ago that the loosehead prop was one of the most important names on Gatland’s team sheet and he has been in fine, niggly form for the Scarlets.
French replacement prop Demba Bamba has a bright future in the game but in the here and now Wales will be confident they have the strength to cope with France’s hulks. If Evans and Francis can see off Jefferson Poirot and Uini Atonio then Wyn Jones and Samson Lee (combined RPI – 149) can be sure to finish the job.
At the base of the scrum Wales will also back themselves to win the battle of the breakdown as Josh Navidi and Justin Tipuric work in tandem with Ross Moriarty. That trio can also do some damage in open play, too.
This is a new-look France line-up, particularly in the backs, and it is almost impossible to predict how the players will gel before they step onto the Stade de France pitch.
Ntamack and Damian Penaud are exciting additions from last year’s Championship and it is mouthwatering to think what they might be capable of if Lopez gets front foot ball and they can link with Wesley Fofana. But that is a big if.
Wales are not two Test victories shy of their longest winning run for no reason and while Les Bleus are a team with potential, Gatland has selected a XV for the here and now. Wales ooze calm, authoritative quality throughout the spine of their team, from hooker Ken Owens – who will become his country’s most-capped No. 2 – to captain Alun Wyn Jones, Tipuric in the back-row and through Jonathan Davies, George North and Liam Williams in the backs.
Gatland’s side have more than enough about them to soak up the physicality of the French pack and put the pressure on the hosts. Should they do that then victory will be theirs for the taking.
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