Preview: Wales v France

Date published: February 20 2014

Wales' defence of their Six Nations crown hangs in the balance as a confident French side visits the Millennium Stadium on Friday.

Wales' defence of their Six Nations crown hangs in the balance as an in-form and confident French side travels to the Millennium Stadium for a rare Friday night fixture.

Having suffered their worst defeat in the Championship since 2006 a fortnight ago, Warren Gatland's side have no choice but to bounce back from their drubbing in Dublin and win big if they are to have any hope of retaining their title.

Wales have lost just one of their last seven home Six Nations encounters (to Ireland last year) but judging by the patchy Welsh performances in the opening two rounds, France will fancy their chances of claiming a rare win outside of Paris.

Les Bleus are winless in their last four Six Nations away games, their worst such sequence since 1986. In fact, they have won just once on the road in the Championship since February 2011 (at Murrayfield in 2012).

Indeed, the France have not started a campaign with three straight wins since they went on to take the Grand Slam in 2010 but success in Cardiff will open up the way for tilt at silverware, with a showdown with Ireland at the Stade de France in the last game of the tournament a mouthwatering prospect.

But we're getting ahead of ourselves. Many were ready to write Wales off last year after their loss to Ireland and they came storming back. Why should this year be any different?

Well, for a start, the opposition have gotten a lot better. And it's now an open secret that if you can stop Wales in a few key areas, their attack falls flat.

“The pressure is on them, it's better to be in our situation than theirs at the moment” said Wesley Fofana midweek. How things have changed since the start of the month!

France will look to capitalise on that pressure, hoping that a nervous error or two will allow the visitors to strike early, as they did against England, and plant a seed of doubt in Welsh minds.

“The opening exchanges will be very important on a psychological level,” added Yannick Nyanga.

The visitors are likely to follow the Irish example and attack via the line-out and rolling mauls – an area that saw Wales concede 17 points in Dublin and one that happens to be a French strength.

Injuries to Jonathan Davies and Scott Williams have forced Gatland to modify his midfield, which has long been the spearhead of his team's attack – Jamie Roberts is the tournament's top ball-carrying back this year, with 28 carries already.

His partnership with George North will be the seventh different starting combination in the Welsh midfield in the last eight games. When Wales won last year's tournament, Roberts and Davies started every game together.

It remains to be seen how well the new combination with North will work, but the giant wing certainly has all the physical attributes required to be an outstanding 13. The French backs have hinted at a plan to shift the massive red-clad centres out of the equation and launch Brice Dulin down young Liam Williams' flank. (Dulin has beaten the most defenders in the 2014 Six Nations – 10).

Before any of that can happen, France must get the better of the outstanding Welsh back row. While the clash between North and Mathieu Bastareaud is attracting all the hype, in might well be amongst the loose forwards that the game is won and lost.

Louis Picamoles is the tournament's top ball-carrying forward having made 137m against England and Italy, and along with Nyanga, has beaten more defenders than any other forward. The Welsh defence, however, will be led by Dan Lydiate, who has the second highest total of tackles made in the Championship so far with 25. He is yet to miss one.

It's set to be a titanic battle – one that will make or break the title ambitions of both Friday's combatants.

Players to watch:

For Wales: With Mike Phillips benched for being “too confrontational,” Rhys Webb gets a chance to stake a claim at the Welsh number nine jersey. Gatland has told him not try outdo Phillips, but to play his own game. The coach believes the Ospreys scrum-half can give his team “other dimension,” highlighting his strong kicking game and ability to bring in runners around the fringes. No fly-half has kicked more than Rhys Priestland this year, so expect the Welsh halfbacks to put plenty of ball to boot.

For France: Les Bleus have a real gem of a prospect at fly-half in Jules Plisson, who will start his third straight game at 10, a rare thing for a French pivot over the last decade or so. So far, he's taken to Test rugby like a fish to water and is growing in confidence. Philippe Saint-André has warned that he expects Wales to throw the kitchen sink at the 10 channel so Friday may well be the young Stade Français playmaker's stiffest challenge yet. With Jean-Marc Doussain in poor form at the kicking tee, Plisson could find himself with even more responsibility.

Head-to-head: It's the clash everyone is talking about. George North takes on Mathieu Bastareaud at outside centre. Both men weigh in excess of 108 kg, meaning there will be no small impacts. Bastareaud will earn his 21st cap against the side that he made his debut against just over five years ago while North is a newcomer to the position. But it's the Frenchman who will be under pressure as many feel that Gael Fickou is a better option in the blue 13 jersey. Basta will have to show that he can do more than just bulldoze.

Previous results:
2013: Wales won 16-6 at Stade de France
2012: Wales won 16-9 at Millennium Stadium
2011: France won 9-8 at Eden Park
2011: France won 28-9 at Stade de France
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

Prediction: Wales have won their last two fixtures against France but have not won three in a row against them since 1970-72. France's most recent win at the Millennium Stadium came in 2010, a game also played on a Friday evening. If France fail to win on Friday it will be the first time since 1965 that they have failed to win in five consecutive Championship matches away from home. France are on an upward curve and we reckon they'll sneak it. France by less than five points

The teams:

Wales: 15 Leigh Halfpenny, 14 Alex Cuthbert, 13 George North, 12 Jamie Roberts, 11 Liam Williams, 10 Rhys Priestland, 9 Rhys Webb, 8 Taulupe Faletau, 7 Sam Warburton (capt), 6 Dan Lydiate, 5 Alun-Wyn Jones, 4 Luke