Preview: France v Wales

Date published: February 27 2015

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The length to which France have struggled under Philippe Saint-André is epitomised by their struggles against Wales.

It's been an incredible four years since they last scored a try against Warren Gatland's side, a run of four games since Vincent Clerc's effort in a 28-9 win in Paris in 2011.

On Saturday they will hardly kick off in top try-scoring form, with one try from their opening two Six Nations games, and there's every chance this will be another tight affair.

France and Wales have probably been the two most underwhelming sides of the tournament so far, with both looking desperately short of ideas and reliant on power runners to make up for a lack of more creative attacking options.

Gatland's team bounced back from their opening day defeat with a hardfought win in Scotland, but they were put under pressure for large parts of the game at Murrayfield.

One key aspect in their win was their ability under the high ball, with Leigh Halfpenny, Liam Williams and Dan Biggar all particularly adept at chasing kicks.

Against a France team that really struggled in their defensive positioning, that will be a battle the Welsh will target and expect to win again.

What will make it more difficult is the introduction of Sofiane Guitoune and Brice Dulin into the French back three, not only offering a greater counter-attacking threat, but also ensuring that les Bleus have three capable full-backs on the pitch so should be a little less naive in their defensive positioning.

France have made three other changes with Romain Taofifenua logically replacing the suspended Pascal Papé, while Morgan Parra gets the start in place of the injured Rory Kockott.

The final change sees Rémi Lamerat get the nod over Mathieu Bastareaud, ensuring the home side will have an even bigger bench than usual.

If it's tight with half an hour to go, Wales will know to expect a battering ram from the French replacements late on.

Gatland has made a few changes of his own, bringing George North back in on the wing in place of Alex Cuthbert, while up front Samson Lee, Scott Baldwin and Luke Charteris all get starts.

On the bench Bradley Davies and Scott Williams get their chance, while for les Bleus we'll get a first sight of Jocelino Suta and Sébastien Tillous-Borde, although one interesting tactic is that France have no kicking option on the bench so realistically won't be able to bring on all their replacements except if there is an injury.

Ones to watch: He doesn't have the name recognition of Wesley Fofana or Mathieu Bastareaud, but Rémi Lamerat was seen as the next great French centre when he came through the ranks. A product of Toulouse, he looked the natural successor to Yannick Jauzion as a powerful yet cultured runner, but successive serious knee injuries derailed his career. Now established at Castres, he has impressed over the last 18 months, and did well coming off the bench early in Dublin. He'll be tested against the Welsh midfield but offers an alternative to Bastareaud's bludgeon.

Elsewhere for France Brice Dulin's return to fitness will be a huge boost. While Scott Spedding proved in November that he is more than the big bosher that many have pegged him, it's true that he's not hit the heights in the Six Nations. Recovered from a biceps injury, Dulin and his quick feet will pounce on any loose kicks by the Welsh. He will be tested under the high ball, but despite his small stature, the Racing full-back is strong in that department.

For Wales the presence of Samson Lee in the front row will be vital, with the Welsh scrum having suffered at times in Scotland. The Scarlets tighthead didn't have it all his own way against England, but he will pose a bigger test for Eddy Ben Arous than Ireland did a fortnight ago. Lee hasn't had a great deal of rugby over the last month though because of injuries, so it will be interesting to see how long he lasts, especially once the French big guns are introduced.

Finally Luke Charteris will play a key role for Wales in trying to stop the French maul. The giant from Racing-Métro has learned to use his size since moving to the Top 14, and is now a real nuisance in slowing down opposition mauls. That has long been a weakness for the Welsh, and something France used to great effect against Scotland. The Irish approach of not competing worked last time out, but as a surprise tactic it probably won't work again. If Charteris can cut les Bleus off at source, Wales will have a much better chance of winning.

Head to head: It will be a contrast of styles at the scrum-half position, with Morgan Parra back in the nine jersey for France for the first time since last June. His experience and leadership will be key, and expect him to order his pack around in a way that Rory Kockott failed to do in the first two games. While he will try to speed the game up, his influence will be greater in terms of decision-making and taking a little bit of pressure off Camille Lopez.

Rhys Webb, in contrast, poses his greatest threat with his sniping runs, and his nose for the try-line has already seen him notch two tries in as many games in the Championship, bringing his season's tally up to 13 in all competitions. He did struggle at times under pressure against the Scots but this seems like the sort of game where he might catch France sleeping and if it's tight, that could make all the difference.

Recent results:
2014: Wales won 27-6 in Cardiff
2013: Wales won 16-9 in Paris
2012: Wales on 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
2007: France won 34-7 in Cardiff
2007: France won 32-21 in Paris
2006: France won 21-16 in Cardiff
2005: Wales won 24-18 in Paris

Prediction: With the exception of last year, in which neither side was overly impressive, this fixture has been tight in recent seasons. Given the lack of creativity shown by both sides to date, it's difficult to imagine this one being anything other than a tight game. France should be better under the high ball, and Wales will offer more resistance up front. Still, it's almost a coin flip, and despite Wales' good recent record, we think the French might just nick it. France by 3.

The teams:

France: 15 Brice Dulin, 14 Yoann Huget, 13 Rémi Lamerat, 12 Wesley Fofana, 11 Sofiane Guitoune, 10 Camille Lopez, 9 Morgan Parra, 8 Damien Chouly, 7 Bernard Le Roux, 6 Thierry Dusautoir, 5 Yoann Maestri, 4 Romain Taofifenua, 3 Rabah Slimani, 2 Guilhem Guirado, 1 Eddy Ben Arous.
Replacements: 16 Benjamin Kayser, 17 Uini Atonio, 18 Vincent Debaty, 19 Jocelino Suta, 20 Loann Goujon, 21 Sebastien Tillous-Borde, 22 Rémi Talès, 23 Mathieu Bastareaud. 

Wales: 15 Leigh Halfpenny, 14 George North, 13 Jonathan Davies, 12 Jamie Roberts, 11 Liam Williams, 10 Dan Biggar, 9 Rhys Webb, 8 Taulupe Faletau, 7 Sam Warburton (c), 6 Dan Lydiate, 5 Alun-Wyn Jones, 4 Luke Charteris, 3 Samson Lee, 2 Scott Baldwin, 1 Gethin Jenkins. 
Replacements: 16 Richard Hibbard, 17 Paul James, 18 Aaron Jarvis, 19 Bradley Davies, 20 Justin Tipuric, 21 Mike Phillips, 22 Rhys Priestland, 23 Scott Williams. 

Date: Saturday, February 28
Venue: Stade de France, Paris
Kick-off: 18:00 local (17:00 GMT)
Referee: Jaco Peyper (South Africa)
Assistant Referees: JP Doyle (England), Marius Mitrea (Italy)
TMO: Simon McDowell

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