France and Samoa have made the biggest headlines during the end-of-year international window. On Saturday they face off in Paris.
France and Samoa have made the biggest headlines during the end-of-year international window. On Saturday they go head-to-head in Paris.
There are some high-profile clashes on the menu elsewhere this weekend but if you're looking for high-paced entertainment then you're more likely to find it at the Stade de France than at Twickenham.
Indeed, Samoa had everyone (who isn't Welsh) out of their seats last Friday while France's intentions to play with plenty of width against Argentina (in the first-half at least) suggested we're in for a cracker as les Bleus return to the French capital after their visit to Lille.
Complacency is unlikely to be an issue for the XV de France as the shock defeat to Tonga in the World Cup last year will still be fresh in the minds of many in the home side. All the noises coming out of the French headquarters have been very positive, so there is no question of the kind of internal discord that was at the root of that France's Jekyll and Hyde form during the Marc LiÃ¨vremeont era.
There should be no lack of motivation for the hosts either as victory will cement fourth place in the IRB rankings and ensure they are drawn as the top seeds in one of the four 2015 World Cup pools on December 3, avoiding one of the SANZAR heavyweights in the process.
But Philippe Saint-AndrÃ© will not be counting his chickens just yet. Samoa's win in Cardiff was no fluke. Victory over the Wallabies in Sydney last year and a mighty close game with the Springboks at the RWC should leave no doubt as to the islanders' ability to run with the big dogs.
The Samoan team is packed with quality players from 1 to 15, including a handful that ply their trade in France. Census Johnston, Ti'i Paulo and Joe Tekori have become star names in French domestic rugby and they will be able to provide valuable inside information on their club team-mates and others with whom they've crossed paths in the Top 14.
Johnston and Paulo join forces with Wasps prop Sakaria Taulafo to form a formidable front-row that is unlikely to get crunched the way the Wallabies were on their visit to St. Denis a fortnight ago.
It's clear from the comments coming out of the home camp they are not underestimating their opponents and are well aware of the danger – and that was the word used regularly – involved in Saturday's clash. Indeed, the physical onslaught dished out on Wales has not gone unnoticed.
Saint-AndrÃ© has resisted the temptation to experiment and rotation has been kept to a minimum. In fact, the three changes made to the French side have significantly bolstered the experience of the starting XV.
Considering past results and current form, France will start as favourites, but that will mean nothing to the visitors.
Players to watch:
For France: One of the most regular features of the French team in recent years, Morgan Parra has started the last two games on the bench. Back in the starting XV, the goal-kicking scrum-half will be out to prove he is France's best 9. Like Fred Michalak on his outside, Parra is not a big man and that inside channel could see some heavy traffic. Louis Picamoles has been one of the players of the month, not just for France but anywhere in Europe. Simply devastating with ball in hand, he'll also be tasked with stopping the big men off set-pieces.
For Samoa: Toulouse prop Census Johnston is regarded as one of the strongest tightheads in European club rugby. Up against one of the best scrummaging units in the world, his role will be crucial in laying a platform for Samoa's runners. Robert Lilomaiava scored four tries on his Test debut – on the wing – against Canada two weeks ago. He starts at full-back this weekend, and is set to get a much sterner examination of his international credentials.
Head-to-head: Clermont Auvergne team-mates Benjamin Kayser and Ti'i Paulo have been promoted to the starting line-ups of their respective sides and go head-to-head at hooker. Kayser is generally the better scrummager while Paulo is a real threat with ball in hand.
2009: France won 43-5 at Stade de France
1999: France won 39-22 in Apia
Prediction: Significantly, both Samoa's win over Wales and France's success against Argentina happened below closed roofs. With a wet surface expected in Paris, the packs and tactical kickers will play a bigger role. France are likely to have the edge in both departments and we cannot ignore the impressive scorelines of their previous two games. France by 12 points.
France: 15 Brice Dulin, 14 Wesley Fofana, 13 Florian Fritz, 12 Maxime Mermoz, 11 Vincent Clerc, 10 Frederic Michalak, 9 Morgan Parra, 8 Louis Picamoles, 7 Fulgence Ouedraogo, 6 Yannick Nyanga, 5 Yoann Maestri, 4 Pascal PapÃ© (c), 3 Nicolas Mas, 2 Benjamin Kayser, 1 Thomas Domingo
Replacements: 16 Dimitri Szarzewski, 17 Yannick Forestier, 18 Vincent Debaty, 19 Jocelino Suta, 20 Damien Chouly, 21 Maxime Machenaud, 22 Francois Trinh-Duc, 23 Yoann Huget.
Samoa: 15 Robert Lilomaiava, 14 Paul Perez, 13 George Pisi, 12 Johnny Leota, 11 David Lemi (capt), 10 Tusi Pisi, 9 Kahn Fotuali'i, 8 Taiasina Tuifua, 7 Maurie Fa'asavalu, 6 Ofisa Treviranus, 5 Joe Tekori, 4 Filo Paulo, 3 Census Johnston, 2 Ti'i Paulo, 1 Sakaria Taulafo.
Replacements: 16 Ole Avei, 17 Villiamu Afatia, 18 James Johnston, 19 Faatiga Lemalu, 20 Tivaini Fomai, 21 Jeremy Su'a, 22 Ki Anufe, 23 Reupena Levasa.
Date: Saturday, November 24
Venue: Stade de France, Paris
Weather: 10Â° C. Chances of rain and strong winds
Kick-off: 20.00 local (19.00 GMT)
Referee: John Lacey (Ireland)
By Ross Hastie