The key battle areas ahead of the Six Nations curtain closer in Cardiff
Six Nations Wales v France Preview
This is the last game of this year’s Six Nations. But while all the chatter will have been about England versus Ireland before it, this game still offers a rich seam of intrigue.
Wales could solidify second spot in the Six Nations table, a fine return for the team who were under a lot of people’s radars after the loss to England. France, on the other side, have completely turned around their competition, with two wins in a row.
Much has been made of the influential return of big Mathieu Bastareaud in the centre for them. Before this match, France coach Jacques Brunel said of the Toulon star: “For some time he has a sort of serenity which can influence the team. He’s like a quiet force. We know the weight he can have on the pitch, with or without the ball.”
But as lucky a charm as he has been, France still haven’t won in Cardiff since 2010. And France still cannot even fathom garnering a try-bonus. They just do not cross the try-line enough.
Fans will want excitement from this, the competition’s curtain call. They will want tries. Wales will just want to win.
Warren Gatland said: “For us it is pretty important in terms of opportunity to finish second. The exciting thing about the Championship at the moment is how close it is and how many teams think they are capable of winning it.”
Of course, while both sides simply want a result, hang the try tally, remember that it may not be boring. Something weird could come up. After all, this was the tie that went into 100 minutes of play, last year.
Here’s where the contest could be won and lost in Cardiff…
The Key Battle Areas
Scott Williams is a master ball-ripper and Hadleigh Parkes is so calm and composed on both sides of the ball. But when France want to re-launch attacks from restarts, they are going to have to regularly attempt to contain the seismic Bastareaud.
The big man was the chief tormentor of Italy. Against England he was the focal point of so much that was good. He has been written off, but back he comes. He has been a one-man thundering herd since he came back from his ban for a homophobic slur.
Of course, Parkes and Williams can slide off, away from tacklers. Like the scissors in your house, Williams can appear out of nowhere mid-play – and he has a sharp edge.
And it is with Parkes and Williams that will need to be shepherded more by French full-back Benjamin Fall. Leigh Halfpenny’s dependable scuttling across and reliable crouch-and-spring tackling style is less likely to be deployed near Bastareud too often – he does his work were there is plenty of mass, trying to manufacture a plate shift where once there was just solid land.
Visits to the ‘red zone’
As good as they were against England, France were wasteful. Cast your mind back to Remy Grosso galloping through the English cover, before turning a fine overlap into a dead opportunity.
Wales, on the other hand, have scored nine tries at the Principality this Six Nations. And while Liam Williams can count himself lucky to be retained after he mindless carding last week, we know he can create (and convert) try-scoring opportunities. Steff Evans is a handy option off the bench, but George North is retained too, to see if he can pick up from his brace last week, against Italy.
France did not have the best of times against England’s set-pieces last week. Two scrums were lost and five lineouts were stolen. If you need any kind of platform, keeping hold of the ball from restarts is vital.
If there is any change to come out here, solidity would be lovely but off-the-top ball is totally golden. Parkes has beaten more defenders than anyone else in the competition, with 15, and when quick front foot ball is available from the lineout, Wales will want it worked favourably into his hands – he slit through traffic to score a try against Italy last week, with momentum all stemming from the lineout.
As for scrum-time, with two personnel swaps in the French front-row, and while the benched Rabah Slimani has warning-flashes about the number of penalties he concedes, Cedate Gomes Sa has quietly been collecting scrum penalties too and this is only his fifth cap. At the very least, Ken Owens in the Welsh front-row, and skipper Alun Wyn Jones would be well advised to start a dialogue early with referee Ben O’Keeffe.
In the ‘penalties conceded’ column
How influential have referees been this tournament? Whoever keeps the whistler happy at the breakdown should win this one. Wales have such a multi-faceted back-row team for this one that they are well equipped to gain joy at the ruck – or at least with holding up ball.
However, they need to learn on the fly. They must become attuned with ref O’Keeffe’s idiosyncrasies. Because Maxime Machenaud’s boot has become vital for a French team that must kick points more than they can get on the ground sometimes.
Another theme of this Six Nations has been the use of crossfield kicks with advantage. Which brings up a few interesting what-ifs. We know that Dan Biggar is a master at catching his own kicks in midfield. If you twin that with the opportunity presented by Gael Fickou playing in the French back three and with a willing and fearless chaser in Liam Williams, we could see a lot more kicking as an attacking weapon, without advantage.
We could also see some opportunities for penalties and even a card with such an aerial approach.
Wales: Leigh Halfpenny; George North, Scott Williams, Hadleigh Parkes, Lian Williams; Dan Biggar, Gareth Davies; Rob Evans, Ken Owens, Tomas Francis, Cory Hill, Alun Wyn Jones (captain), Justin Tipuric, Josh Navidi, Taulupe Faletau.
Replacements: Elliot Dee, Nicky Smith, Samson Lee, Bradley Davies, Aaron Shingler, Aled Davies, Gareth Anscombe, Steff Evans.
France: Benjamin Fall; Gael Fickou, Mathieu Bastareaud (captain), Geoffrey Doumayrou, Remy Grosso; Francois Trinh-Duc, Maxime Machenaud; Jefferson Poirot, Adrien Pelissie, Cedate Gomes Sa, Paul Gabrillagues, Sebastien Vahaamahina, Wenceslas Lauret, Yacouba Camara, Marco Tauleigne.
Replacements: Camille Chat, Dany Priso, Rabah Slimani, Bernard Le Roux, Mathieu Babillot, Baptiste Couilloud, Lionel Beauxis, Geoffrey Palis.
Wales v France, Saturday 17 March, 5pm, Principality Stadium
Ben O’Keeffe is a 29-year-old Kiwi, and an ophthalmologist. You may remember him from the autumn Test between England and Australia last year, when Wallabies coach Michael Cheika ironically clapped O’Keeffe’s decision to chalk off a try, and visibly mouthed the words “f******* cheats.” O’Keeffe also brandished two yellow cards in that game.
The match will be shown live on BBC One. Match commentary can also be heard live on BBC Radio 5 live.