By Brendan Cole
Wales have the championship sewn up and only a France team which has spent the season bolstering the reputation of Marc Lievremont stand between them and a Grand Slam.
Lievremont was widely seen as the man responsible for France’s zany dips and peaks of form – mainly dips – and Phillipe Saint-André was supposed to be the man who would bring the same Anglo-Saxon consistency that Bernard Laporte wanted but never quite captured.
There are many symptoms which indicate that France’s problem is more to do with culture than individuals: even the habit of naming their team on the Monday before the match hints at complacency.
Complacency has undoubtedly been seen on the pitch in the likes of the tendency towards slackness in the defensive line as the opposition move the ball across the pitch.
France have also failed to plan properly for opponents so far, certainly in Ireland’s case and probably against England as well. That will need to change.
This is a team which only lights up on turnover ball, or in the last ten minutes of their matches.
In contrast, going at it hard from the first minute, and getting the right blend of playing their game while tailoring the style to suit the opposition, has been a hallmark of Wales’ campaign.
In that vein, Warren Gatland and Shaun Edwards would undoubtedly have noticed Wesley Fofana’s light weight and habit of slipping off a tackle or two in the centre.
Unfortunately for Wales, the opportunity to attack that area is reduced by his shift to the wing. Florian Fritz, a tank to match the Welsh number 13 Jonathan Davies, has been drafted in and with Aurélien Rougerie alongside France look to have the power and size needed to stop the Welsh flow in that area.
But the decision to stick with Lionel Beauxis after last week’s display is puzzling and the Gatland/Edwards crosshairs will surely shift from the centres to the Stade Francais out-half.
But Beauxis may well be protectable to a degree, and if Wales are denied those easy yards up the middle, it will be interesting to see how Rhys Priestland copes as the Llanelli Scarlet has not always looked comfortable when asked to do anything other than hit the wide channels with long passes.
Fortunately for the Welsh, he has a truly top-class partner in Mike Phillips, but you have to wonder how much opportunity his pack is capable of giving him to probe the fringes.
This French eight certainly should be able to claim a dominant position – the likes of Thierry Dusautoir, William Servat, Pascal Pape and Yoann Maestri are superior operators to their counterparts – and the selection of Dimitri Yachvili could turn out to be a masterstoke. On his day, the Biarrtiz nine is capable of coaxing the best from even the most temperamental French pack.
Will France bring enough attitude to truly test the suspicion that there has been an element of smoke and mirrors about Wales’ journey through this championship? Or have French minds already shifted to the Top 14 and the Heineken Cup?
It is obviously debatable, but the XV selected certainly looks capable of doing damage and with their pride stung from last week, France may just poop the party.
Prediction: Wales 18-21 France
Wales v France, RBS 6 Nations, 17 March, Millennium Stadium, kick-off 2.45pm:
Wales: 15 Leigh Halfpenny, 14 Alex Cuthbert, 13 Jonathan Davies, 12 Jamie Roberts, 11 George North, 10 Rhys Priestland, 9 Mike Phillips, 8 Toby Faletau, 7 Sam Warburton (c), 6 Dan Lydiate, 5 Ian Evans, 4 Alun Wyn Jones, 3 Adam Jones, 2 Matthew Rees, 1 Gethin Jenkins.
Replacements: 16 Ken Owens, 17 Paul James, 18 Luke Charteris, 19 Ryan Jones, 20 Lloyd Williams, 21 James Hook, 22 Scott Williams.
France: 15 Clement Poitrenaud, 14 Wesley Fofana, 13 Aurélien Rougerie, 12 Florian Fritz, 11 Alexis Palisson, 10 Lionel Beauxis, 9 Dimitri Yachvili, 8 Imanol Harinordoquy, 7 Julien Bonnaire, 6 Thierry Dusautoir (c), 5 Yohann Maestri, 4 Pascal Pape, 3 David Attoub, 2 William Servat, 1 Jean-Baptiste Poux.
Replacements: 16 Dimitri Szarzewski, 17 Vincent Debaty, 18 Julien Pierre, 19 Louis Picamoles, 20 Morgan Parra, 21 François Trinh-Duc, 22 Jean-Marcellin Buttin.