Wales will look to confirm their status as the northern hemisphere's leading nation with a Grand Slam in Cardiff on Saturday.
Wales will look to confirm their status as the northern hemisphere's leading nation by adding the final piece to the Grand Slam puzzle against France in Cardiff on Saturday.
Forget what those silly rankings say, this year's Six Nations Championship has confirmed what we were all led to believe during the World Cup: Wales are currently Europe's best side, and if they can keep all fifteen men on the park on Saturday (unlike in Auckland last October) they have every reason to believe they can complete their third Slam in eight years.
Wales have played some very exciting rugby this year and – assuming Ireland aren't thrashed at Twickenham – they will, deservedly, be crowned Six Nations champions, win or lose on Saturday.
It's so refreshing to see positive, open rugby from one of the Home Nations being rewarded and Warren Gatland has at his disposal a settled group that should continue to entertain for some years yet.
Mention for the World Cup and Sam's red card – check; Mention for the Grand Slam – check; Mention for Gatland and exciting rugby – check, check.
Right, now that the pleasantries have been dealt with, prepare yourself as I'm about to launch into a massive rant about France.
Lionel Beauxis at ten? Again? Really? After what happened last week? This must be some kind of sick joke….
I've yet to meet a single person who thinks Beauxis deserves another chance after last week's catastrophe (the French coaching staff excluded, of course). He was supposed to ensure that France dominated territorially and land a bunch of three pointers. He did neither. And he certainly didn't create much with ball in hand. Yet, Philippe Saint-AndrÃ© insists it's only fair that he gets another shot “away from home since FranÃ§ois Trinh-Duc was allowed to start the first three games.”
PSA is adamant that having two completely different fly-halves gives his team options – and he does make a fair point – but where does it leave them in terms of their preferred game plan? The retention of Beauxis and the return of Dimitri Yachvili means France will line-up their fourth half-back pairing in five games. Sound familiar?
Trinh-Duc's kicking game has come under heavy criticism for some time now but the harsh reality is that there simply isn't a pivot in France that ticks all the boxes. With Morgan Parra and Yachvili both reliable goal-kickers, Trinh-Duc's ability to take the ball to, and often over, the gain line must surely be a trump card.
Now that I've vented my spleen and can think clearly, there might be a method behind PSA's madness, but not one he is willing to admit openly. Heavy showers have been forecast for Saturday. The visitors insist the roof remain open. France love to maul, and they're damn good at it. Beauxis has massive boot. Wait…what's this? William Servat is back? Did anyone say rolling maul from attacking line-out?
If there is one thing we've learnt this year it's that France are simply not the same team without Servat. The best hooker in Europe has been left on the bench the whole tournament in the name of building for the future but has been given a starting berth this week since it's his last international game (note that Lionel Nallet was not accorded the same privilege).
Indeed the justification for the wholesale changes this weekend has been the rebuilding process. But it's impossible to imagine that Florian Fritz and 31-year-old AurÃ©lien Rougerie will form a long-term centre partnership so why bother forcing Wesley Fofana – France's most dangerous player this year – to play out of position on the wing? The explanation for the Rougerie-Fritz combo at the expensive of Maxime Mermoz (who has been sent home having hardly played) is to bulk up the midfield to match Wales' heavyweight runners. Mixing and matching with selections and game plans, playing youngsters out of position….do we really need to go down this road, again?
Perhaps I'm being too harsh. Since France have nothing to lose, perhaps this is the time to try something new. I just can't stave off the feeling it's all a bit of a last-minute mishmash rather than the coherent continuation of what has been done so far.
Back to Wales, who, in stark contrast have named an unchanged backline for a fifth successive Test match. Those same backs have scored all nine of the side's tries this term. The consistency in selection is underlined by the fact that 10 of the run-on XV have started every Six Nations game this season.
So what we've got here is one settled side, on the verge of an historic occasion, hosting a travelling group trying to find their feet as a few new ingredients are thrown into the mix. We'll only know if those ingredients are the right ones late on Saturday, but if they are, the danger for Wales is to get ahead of themselves.
They hosts have repeated at nauseam that they are not counting their chickens just yet but with all the hype surrounding the team it would only be human nature to imagine the potential glory on the horizon.
It's a fatal error that we've seen time and again. Some would suggest the All Blacks came very close to being the victims of exactly the same and only got out of jail against the French last year thanks to a certain Craig Joubert, who happens to be in the middle this week (much to Imanol Harinordoquy's displeasure if Thursday's press conference is anything to go by).
Wales will do well to remember the 29-12 victory over France in 2008 that gave them their last Grand Slam since it was their only win over France in their last eight clashes. And Cardiff seems to be a happy hunting ground for les Bleus, who have won on seven of their last eight visits to the Millennium Stadium since the 1999 World Cup Final defeat to Australia there.
Players love to tell you that the past is the past, but people will be people and a lot of emotional baggage will be carried out onto the park by both sides on Saturday. It promises to be fascinating.
Players to watch:
For France: Certain sectors of the French press were up in arms when Florain Fritz was not included in France's initial Six Nations squad. Monsieur Fritz has been in and out of the French setup over the years after not always seeing eye to eye with coaches and being the victim of his disciplinary record (he's seen yellow four times already this season.) He's been in storming form for Toulouse – just ask the three Castres defenders he flattened en-route to the tryline last week – and is just the man for the job as PSA looks to add some bulk to his midfield. Also keep an eye on young Clermont wing/full-back Jean-Marcellin Buttin, who could earn his first cap off the bench at the tender age of 20. Buttin has been the find of the Top 14 season and will be keen to emulate club team-mate Wesley Fofana in making a splash on debut.
For Wales: The unsung hero of Wales' campaign, Dan Lydiate has been a tackling