By Tadhg Peavoy
Wales v France, Millenium Stadium, 8pm (Live on RTÉ Two)
Wales have had the upper hand on France in the RBS 6 Nations in recent times. The last two encounters have gone the way of the Principality, with a combined scoreline of Wales 32-15 France.
That duo of wins, however, seriously bucks the trend of this tie since 2000. It is, in fact, the only time Wales have won back-to-back ties against Les Bleus since 1999, and very much rams home how good they have been these last few seasons.
If Wales win under the lights tonight at Millennium Stadium then it will be their first three-in-a-row over France since 1970-’72; in essence it will be a huge achievement.
France come into the tie two wins from two and unquestionably with the better form of the two sides; their victory over England in round one seemingly a combination of fortune in their two early tries, and sublime skills for their winning try.
Against Italy in their second encounter they failed to ignite for large periods, and relied on a salvo of tries just after half-time to put daylight between themselves and the Azzurri.
That said, although they’ve failed to totally spark yet, the consistency and structure that head coach Philippe Saint-André wants to implement looks to be surfacing in this side, following two dire campaigns in 2012 and 2013.
As Paul O’Connell alluded to at Carton House on Thursday, Wales were off form in Dublin, and although Ireland played well in their total destruction of them, it’s highly unlikely they will play that badly in this championship again.
Back in front of their partisan home crowd, and needing a win to stay in the hunt for the championship, this game has become a must win for Wales, and they’ll be preparing to throw the kitchen sink and then some at France.
Warren Gatland’s side failed to get into their rhythm against Ireland, the pack was outmuscled at set-piece and breakdown, and with those platform disrupted, their key strike runners didn’t get the possession or field position they need to in order to do damage.
Ireland’s performance really was a template of how to beat the men in red: by meeting fire with fire.
Wales play to a very similar pattern in each outing, and vary little from their very specific blueprint. As long as they can get the possession they need up front, they have the sheer physicality to mow teams over with Jamie Roberts and George North creating space for other runners to feed off.
But the way in which Ireland’s backline smothered Wales with chop tackles, and kept aggression levels up for 80 minutes, meant Wales never got out of third gear.
France have looked a side that has a little bit of everything this time out. A solid pack, with skill sprinkled throughout the 9-15 division.
On the surface the 2014 vintage doesn’t appear to have the off-the-cuff brilliance that France teams of old have possessed, but they have shown they can dazzle with moments of sublime skill. Yoann Huget and Wesley Fofana are their two game changers who can provide a moment of genius that will turn a game on its head.
With Fofana and Huget creating openings, and Mathieu Bastareaud blasting holes open with sheer size and strength, France have loads of ability. And with North and Roberts lining up in the centre against the Fofana-Bastareaud combination, the midfield is going to be an absolute battle ground.
It could in fact be outside that axis that the difference is made in the backs. I fancy Alex Cuthbert to potentially do damage to Hugo Bonneval, but Huget could get the edge on Liam Williams. Who gets more of an edge is hard to say and could be pivotal to the outcome.
At halfback, Rhys Priestland will have something to prove after his poor showing in Dublin, while Rhys Webb will relish his chance to start at No 9 ahead of Mike Phillips. Those two factors could give Wales an advantage over Jean Marc Doussain and Jules Plisson at halfback.
All of these match-ups appear tight, but everything depends on the packs. If Wales’ eight perform like they did in Dublin, France will win this tie.
Gethin Jenkins and Adam Jones must do much better in the scrum. And their ball carriers must make more yardage and offload with more frequency and accuracy than they did last week. And perhaps most importantly the back row of Dan Lydiate, Sam Warburton and Toby Faletau must turn up – a feat they failed to do in Dublin.
If Wales manage to put those three elements together they will be right in the tie.
If not, Thomas Domingo and Nicolas Mas will massacre the scrum. Dimitri Szarzewski, Yannick Nyanga and Louis Picamoles will maraud in the loose, and the backrow will take away Wales’ platform at the breakdown.
It’s often said that good teams don’t become bad teams after one poor performance. I think this is the case with Wales, and that tonight will be a case of righting the wrongs of their Dublin debacle and overturning France by one score, in what will be a wonderfully entertaining, creative and physically sapping game of rugby.
Verdict: Wales to win by four.
Live television coverage of the RBS 6 Nations from 19:30 on Friday 21 February (Wales v France).