Preview: France v Wales

Date published: March 18 2011

Wales face off with France on Saturday in a scenario that few would have predicted before the Six Nations kicked off six weeks ago.

Wales face off with France on Saturday in a scenario that few would have predicted before the Six Nations kicked off six weeks ago.

Under-performing and under pressure, Wales were winless in eight games at the start of the championship, yet they travel to Paris still in with a chance – albeit slim – of claiming the title.

In stark contrast, the defending champions are teetering on the brink of collapse, with daggers out for coach Marc Lièvremont after Les Bleus' shock loss in Rome last week.

Indeed, all the headlines this week have focused on the embattled coach and his shaky relationship with his players, the French press and the French public in general.

After feeling the heat for so long himself, Warren Gatland must be loving it.

This time last year France were buoyant. Having beaten the Springboks, the All Blacks and the then-Grand Slam champions Ireland in the space of a few months, everyone was backing them to become the dominant force in European rugby and launch a bid for World Cup success. France duly went on to claim the Six Nations clean sweep, but from those heights it's been almost all downhill.

We all thought they couldn't sink much lower than that drubbing by Australia in November, but last week was another reminder that all is not well.

Another defeat this weekend would leave France with just four points, which would represent their worst campaign since 2001. Les Bleus have never scored fewer than nine tries in a Six Nations tournament but so far this year they have touched down just seven times.

For all the coach's promises of a return to 'flair' the when he started the job four years ago, France are averaging only 2.1 tries per game in the Li̬vremont era Рtheir worst strike rate in 30 years.

Where did it all go wrong? Or, more importantly, is there enough time to get the ship back on course? Anything but victory on Saturday will leave French morale and their World Cup preparations in tatters.

What was most significant in Lièvremont's post-Rome rant(s) was not his accusation of a lack of pride in the jersey but the impression that his players were not sticking to the game-plan and rather just doing their own thing.

Many pundits have questioned Lièvremont's tactics in general, but a bad plan is at least still a plan. At this level there is no room for 'winging it.' Everyone needs to be singing from the same hymn sheet and if the coach has lost the confidence of his players to the extend that they are not willing to follow his orders, then progress is near-impossible.

As for Wales, the task at hand is a massive one. Even if Ireland win in Dublin, which is well within the realm of possibility, it's unlikely that England will be hammered, meaning that Wales will still have to overturn the better part of the 42 points they trail by on points difference.

They might be in second place, but the cold hard truth is that Wales' position is more a reflection of the general poor standard of this year's competition rather than anything special from the men in red.

Wales have conceded more penalties than any other side this year and have a habit of kicking away a lot of possession. The combination of Morgan Parra's consistency from the kicking tee and France's ability to counter-attack seems like the ideal recipe to exploit those tendencies to the hosts' advantage.

The record books don't offer much encouragement for Welsh fans as France have won five of the last six meetings between these sides and are aiming for an eighth successive home win in the championship.

Welsh hopes for the big win they need rest very much on the shoulders of James Hook, who has won all seven of the Six Nations matches he has started at fly-half. That he is the man to guide Wales' attack is now surely beyond doubt.

Before last year's clash, Gatland was stirring the pot in the build-up saying France were a great team on their day but have yet to show the consistency needed to be a world force. Twelve months on and those words have never been more true.

Yet – yes, it is a cliche – France are never more dangerous than when they have their backs to the wall.

Players to watch:

For France: One of the few players to do his team proud in Italy, expect another huge performance from skipper/flank/tackle-machine/human battering ram Thierry Dusautoir. Also keep an eye on Alexis Palisson. Left wing is one of the positions up for grabs in the French team and a big performance could see the Brive flyer sneak into the first-choice line-up when it's time to head to New Zealand.

For Wales: Of course we have to go with teenage sensation George North, who will be making his Six Nations debut after bursting onto the Test scene in November. The 18-year-old has the unenviable task of filling the boots of the injured Shane Williams. Thank goodness that is only an expression because at 6ft 4″ North is, physically, in a whole different category to the aging wing maestro. Up against another veteran pocket rocket in Vincent Clerc, the youngster will look to show off his power.

Head-to-head: Having played just 20 minutes since returning from injury, Adam Jones will need all his experience against one of the form looseheads in the world at the moment, Thomas Domingo. The French scrum is without equal at the moment, but Jones' reputation for being master of the set-piece is well earned.

Previous results:

2010: France won 26-20 at Millennium Stadium
2009: France won 21-16 at Stade de France
2008: Wales won 29-12 at Millennium Stadium
2007: France won 34-7 at Millennium Stadium
2007: France won 32-21 at Stade de France
2006: France won 21-16 at Millennium Stadium
2005: Wales won 24-18 at Stade de France
2004: France won 29-22 at Millennium Stadium
2003: France won 33-5 at Stade de France
2002: France won 37-33 at Millennium Stadium
2001: Wales won 35-43 at Stade de France
2000: France won 36-3 at Millennium Stadium

Prediction: For all their inconsistency surely last week's humbling in Italy would have come as a wake-up call for the XV de France. They'll be up for it in a big way. France by eight points

The teams:

France: 15 Maxime Médard, 14 Vincent Clerc, 13 David Marty, 12 Damien Traille, 11 Alexis Palisson, 10 Francois Trinh-Duc, 9 Morgan Parra, 8 Imanol Harinordoquy, 7 Julien Bonnaire, 6 Thierry Dusautoir (capt), 5 Lionel Nallet, 4 Julien Pierre, 3 Nicolas Mas, 2 William Servat, 1 Thomas Domingo.
Replacements: 16 Guilhem Guirado, 17 Luc Ducalcon, 18 Pascal Papé, 19 Alexandre Lapandry, 20 Julien Tomas, 21 Fabien Estebanez, 22 Yoann Huget.

Wales: 15 Lee Byrne, 14 Leigh Halfpenny, 13 Jamie Roberts, 12 Jonathan Davies, 11 George North, 10