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Preview: France v Wales

07th February 2013 22:12

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Wesley Fofana France v Wales 2012

Wesley Fofana: Wasted on the wing?

Saturday's Six Nations clash at the Stade de France has turned into a must-win clash for both the hosts and the defending champions.

With trips to Twickenham and Lansdowne Road still on the menu, it's hard to see France - many pundits' pre-tournament favourites - claim the title after their misadventure in Rome last week. The Championship has taken on a completely different complexion for Philippe Saint-André, who must now regain the confidence of the French fans.

But PSA is not winning many friends with his current selection policy. We're amongst those who still cannot understand why his matchday 23 contains four centres, a wing at full-back and no specialist replacement for any of the back three. Wesley Fofana, the best centre in Europe at the moment, is stuck out on the wing where his involvement in the game is severely limited.

The Clermont try magnet, who was popping up in midfield against Italy out of pure frustration, has started voicing his dissatisfaction with the situation, saying he was getting "sick and tired of not getting the ball" against Italy and has vowed to move out of position in order to see more action "whether told to or not" if he doesn't get opportunities to use his talent. Those are not the kind of words the French staff will like hearing, and supporters of les Bleus can only hope the seed of discontent does not grow into the kind animosity that ended the Lièvremont era.

Before travelling to Italy, Saint-André complained that France had less preparation time than their opponents and his single back-line change for this week is supposed to be aimed at bringing more cohesion. But the plan of fielding an all-Toulon 10-12-13 combination fails at the first scratch of the surface since the players in question have never lined up in that configuration for their club: Fred Michalak has mostly been at 9 and Matt Giteau usually starts at 12 so Maxime Mermoz and Mathieu Bastareaud have very rarely played next to each other. Florian Fritz might feel a touch aggrieved to be relegated to the bench.

That said, it's understandable that the French staff are seeking to align players that are familiar with each other after the whopping 16 handling errors and France's chronic inability to reorganise themselves after more than a few phases in Rome. Sure, Italy were fantastic but France were a shadow of the team that set November alight. Word from inside the camp is that some stern words have been spoken, so the pack is expected to show a lot more urgency and intensity this week.

For Wales, who have now lost eight in row, the situation is far more dire. It's been eight years since they won in Paris and another defeat in the French capital would mean they will have to travel to Rome in the next round under enormous pressure. Last year's Grand Slam must seem like a lifetime ago.

Their second-half performance against the Irish offered plenty of reason for hope but the fact that they reached the interval 20-odd points behind reflects very poorly on the state of mind of those in red when they took the field.

It's hard to pinpoint exactly where things have gone awry. You can't fault the Welsh staff for sticking to systems that brought success over the last few years since none of those eights defeats were crushing results. But losing becomes a habit and it's impossible to suddenly re-inject the confidence that has slowly been drained out of the side over the past twelve months.

France will see last week's disaster as a wake up call and will be able fall back on the confidence created during their end-of-year winning streak. Although they have a more experienced side (575 caps in their starting XV compared to France's 385), Wales have no such well to draw from. The harsh truth is, the Stade de France is the last place in Europe Rob Howley would want to be taking his team right now.

Ironically, Howley is Wales' most successful captain in terms of win ratio. He will need all his leadership skills to remind his team of what winning feels like. In case the Welsh forgot, the last time they tasted victory over a Test nation was against...France.

Players to watch:

For France: Mathieu Bastareaud makes his first start since 2010. His waistline certainly hasn't gotten any smaller but he has grown in maturity. Nicknamed the 'Bulldozer' by the French press, his sheer power and weight mean he almost always gets over the gainline and it usually requires a handful of defenders to bring him down. Will this mark his grand return? Scrum-half Maxime Machenaud was heavily criticised after the loss to Italy, with his inability to get the best out of the French pack under the spotlight. With the 'Little General' Morgan Parra waiting in the wings, Machenaud cannot afford to not impose himself on the game.

For Wales: After an impressive season at regional level, Justin Tipuric gets a rare chance to show what he can do at openside in the absence of Sam Warburton. Once considered one of the best looseheads in the world, Genthin Jenkins' place in the Welsh starting side is under threat, no doubt a result of his lack of game time at Toulon. One of just two survivors from the team that won in Paris in 2005 (Adam Jones is the other), Wales desperately need Jenkins to find his best form. Jamie Roberts wins his 50th Test cap on Saturday.

Head-to-head: Ryan Jones extends his Wales record as skipper, captaining his country for the 30th time with a 52 percent win ratio. Thierry Dusautoir leads France for the 32nd time and is closing in fast on Jean-Pierre Rives and Philippe Saint-André, who both skippered France on 34 occasions (Fabien Pelous holds the French record with 42). Neither loose trio shone last week and both will look to their respective returning captains to lead by example.

Previous results: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
2001: Wales won 35-43 at Stade de France
2000: France won 36-3 at Millennium Stadium

Prediction: It's very hard to back Wales these days and beating France in Paris seems like a tall order. We reckon Wales will come close again, but still no cigar. France by eight points.

Rugby Union betting odds

The teams:

France: 15 Yoann Huget, 14 Wesley Fofana, 13 Mathieu Bastareaud, 12 Maxime Mermoz, 11 Benjamin Fall, 10 Frederic Michalak, 9 Maxime Machenaud, 8 Louis Picamoles, 7 Fulgence Ouedraogo, 6 Thierry Dusautoir, 5 Yoann Maestri, 4 Jocelino Suta, 3 Nicolas Mas, 2 Dimitri Szarzewski, 1 Yannick Forestier
Replacements: 16 Benjamin Kayser, 17 Vincent Debaty, 18 Luc Ducalcon, 19 Romain Taofifenua, 20 Damien Chouly, 21 Morgan Parra, 22 Francois Trinh-Duc, 23 Florian Fritz.

Wales: 15 Leigh Halfpenny, 14 Alex Cuthbert, 13 Jonathan Davies, 12 Jamie Roberts, 11 George North, 10 Dan Biggar, 9 Mike Phillips, 8 Toby Faletau, 7 Justin Tipuric, 6 Ryan Jones (c), 5 Ian Evans, 4 Andrew Coombs, 3 Adam Jones, 2 Richard Hibbard, 1 Gethin Jenkins.
Replacements: 16 Ken Owens, 17 Paul James, 18 Craig Mitchell, 19 Lou Reed, 20 Aaron Shingler, 21 Lloyd Williams, 22 James Hook, 23 Scott Williams.

Date: Saturday, February 9
Venue: Stade de France, St. Denis (Paris)
Kick-off: 18.00 local (17.00 GMT)
Weather: 3° C, chances of light rain
Referee: George Clancy (Ireland)
Assistant referees: Alain Rolland (Ireland), Francisco Pastrana (Argentina)
Television match official: Giulio De Santis (Italy)

By Ross Hastie

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