France and Wales will be determined to finish their respective campaigns on a high when they face off in what promises to be a thrilling encounter in Paris on Saturday.
With England securing their second successive championship with their win over Scotland last week, both France and Wales are amongst the tournament’s also-rans.
They will however be desperate to finish the tournament on a high as both sides know that victory will secure them second position in the standings if England beat Ireland in their final match in Dublin.
A top four Rugby World Cup seed is also on the horizon for Wales if they can win in Paris, and if England defeat Ireland later in the day.
Although both les Bleus and Wales have delivered impressive performances, they are still some way off the standard set by England who claimed narrow wins over these sides earlier in the competition.
France have impressed throughout this year’s tournament but still lack the killer instinct of a great side – like England – and although they have come on in leaps and bounds they are very much a work in progress.
The play of les Bleus‘ forwards has been particularly impressive in this year’s tournament with players like the talismanic number eight Louis Picamoles and flanker Kévin Gourdon combining brilliantly throughout, and their showdown – alongside Fabien Sanconnie – with Wales’ back row of Ross Moriarty, Sam Warburton and Justin Tipuric will be one of this Test’s highlights.
France secured their first bonus-point win of the tournament last week when they beat Italy 40-18 in Rome but they still committed to many handling errors – something which they can ill afford against Wales, who will be quietly confident as they have won the last five encounters between these sides.
Wales delivered arguably their best performance of the championship in their 22-9 triumph over Ireland in Cardiff last weekend and France’s head coach Guy Novès knows his side will have to be at their best if they want to beat Rob Howley’s charges.
“When you see the intensity, the rigour, the pragmatism, the lucidity and the accuracy in all their movements, their defensive physicality… you saw the Irish, who are one of the best teams in the world, fell apart and couldn’t put in place their game,” he said.
“We still have a lot of work to do. If we play and make as many mistakes (as we did against Italy), we won’t survive against Wales. That’s for sure.”
Meanwhile, Warbuton has put the result against Ireland behind him and feels Wales must improve on their performance from that match if they want to beat their hosts.
“Home advantage has a massive part to play in this championship because the teams are so close together that home advantage is another to take you over the finish line,” he said.
“So we know that if we are to win in Paris we will have to produce our best performance.
“We are pleased with the way we played against Ireland but there weren’t a lot of pats on the back. Because there were a lot of times when, in the second half, we made errors where we shouldn’t have, and we could have lost that game.
“So we’ve still got a bit of an edge about us, because we want to put those things right and put in a better performance against France.”
Players to Watch
For France: In Baptiste Serin, France have a precocious talent who has been an ever-present in les Bleus‘ starting line-up since making his Six Nations debut in their tournament opener against England at Twickenham. The 22-year-old has shown glimpses of the form which has made him a fans favourite at his club Bordeaux-Bègles and has the ability to change the course of a game with a moment of magic.
For Wales: Although Wales’ overall performances have been inconsistent, one player who has come to the fore with some solid shifts throughout the competition is Scott Williams. The Scarlets stalwart is keeping the experienced Jamie Roberts on the bench which is no mean feat and another impressive showing in this fixture could book his place in the British and Irish Lions’ squad for their tour to New Zealand later in the year.
Head-to-head: In Virimi Vakatawa and George North, these sides have two of the most potent attackers in the world and their battle is sure to get the pulses racing. Both are devastating with ball in hand and will be expected to get their respective sides over the advantage line with some strong carries. Vakatawa is a player who can tear any defence to shreds, especially when he finds himself in space, while North is difficult to contain once he builds up a head of steam.
2016: Wales won 19-10 in Cardiff
2015: Wales won 20-13 in Paris
2014: Wales won 27-6 in Cardiff
2013: Wales won 16-6 in Paris
2012: Wales won 16-9 in Cardiff
2011: France won 9-8 in Auckland
2011: France won 28-9 in Paris
2010: France won 26-20 in Cardiff
2009: France won 21-16 in Paris
2008: Wales won 29-12 in Cardiff
Prediction: This will be an entertaining spectacle and should go down to the wire. Although France are on their own turf, Wales will pip them by three points!
France: 15 Brice Dulin, 14 Noa Nakaitaci, 13 Rémi Lamerat, 12 Gaël Fickou, 11 Virimi Vakatawa, 10 Camille Lopez, 9 Baptiste Serin, 8 Louis Picamoles, 7 Kévin Gourdon, 6 Fabien Sanconnie, 5 Yoann Maestri, 4 Sébastien Vahaamahina, 3 Rabah Slimani, 2 Guilhem Guirado (c), 1 Cyril Baille
Replacements: 16 Camille Chat, 17 Uini Atonio, 18 Eddy Ben Arous, 19 Julien Le Devedec, 20 Bernard Le Roux, 21 Antoine Dupont, 22 François Trinh-Duc, 23 Yoann Huget
Wales: 15 Leigh Halfpenny, 14 George North, 13 Jonathan Davies, 12 Scott Williams, 11 Liam Williams, 10 Dan Biggar, 9 Rhys Webb, 8 Ross Moriarty, 7 Justin Tipuric, 6 Sam Warburton, 5 Alun Wyn Jones (c), 4 Jake Ball, 3 Tomas Francis, 2 Ken Owens, 1 Rob Evans
Replacements: 16 Scott Baldwin, 17 Nicky Smith, 18 Samson Lee, 19 Luke Charteris, 20 Taulupe Faletau, 21 Gareth Davies, 22 Sam Davies, 23 Jamie Roberts
Date: Saturday, March 18
Venue: Stade de France, Paris
Kick-off: 15:45 local (14:45 GMT)
Referee: Wayne Barnes (England)
Assistant Referees: Ben O’Keeffe (New Zealand), Matthew Carley (England)
TMO: Peter Fitzgibbon (Ireland)