Can Alun Wyn Jones lead his country to a second Grand Slam in three years?

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Six Nations France v Wales Preview

Luck? Or judgement?

People have described Wales’ 2021 Six Nations campaign as fortuitous, what with the red cards issued to Ireland’s Peter O’Mahony and Scotland’s Zander Fagerson as well as the two controversial try decisions in the England match.

Yet that does a disservice to Wales’ performances as they chase yet another Grand Slam. They have been clinical in attack, scoring 17 tries in four matches, including four for Louis Rees-Zammitt. Their ‘red zone’ efficiency – scoring points when in the opposition 22 – is, according to the QBE Risk & Reward Index, the highest in the championship at 2.51 while France average 1.58.

Six Nations France v Wales Preview

Wales wing Louis Rees-Zammit breaks past Teddy Thomas in Paris last year (Getty Images)

Their defence has been solid and the four top tacklers in this year’s championship are Welsh in Justin Tipuric (74), Josh Navidi and Taulupe Faletau (both 60) and Alun Wyn Jones (58). Their set-piece has improved markedly since the autumn, too, with the return of Ken Owens significant and Adam Beard taking charge of the lineout calls.

Wales are now seeing the benefit of using last autumn to develop depth in their squad as well as marrying some of the pragmatic belligerence they were known for under Warren Gatland with the more attack-minded philosophies of new coach Wayne Pivac.

Having said all that, France – the team that stands in the way of a fifth Wales Grand Slam in the Six Nations era – have played the best rugby of any country in Europe over the past year. When they click, their attack is a thing of beauty – the Damian Penaud try against England last weekend a case in point.

What will be key on Saturday night in Paris is mindset. France beat Wales twice in 2020, but will they be dejected after letting their own Grand Slam dream slip away at Twickenham? Or will they be fired up to win their first home game of this year’s championship and target the title?

There are myriad permutations in the title race and Wales will know that they can still lift the trophy even if they lose, providing they pick up the requisite bonus points. They certainly have more experience than France, particularly of big occasions like this, but they will need to be resilient without the ball and ruthless with it if they are to complete another clean sweep.

What’s the big team news?

There’s little to report here. Fabien Galthie has stuck with the same starting XV that lost narrowly to England last week.

He has made a few changes on the bench, reverting to a five-three split between forwards and backs rather than the six-two he selected for Twickenham. Uini Atonio, Swan Rebbadj and Arthur Vincent are the new faces amongst the replacements.

Wayne Pivac has made just one change to his run-on team, Adam Beard returning to the second row to replace Cory Hill having been rested for the Italy match last weekend. “He’s a big man and we’re up against some big men,” said Pivac.

He has also tweaked his bench with Nicky Smith the replacement loosehead rather than Rhys Carre, James Botham taking the place of Aaron Wainwright and Tomos Williams fit to cover scrum-half. It’s the latter who could have the most impact as Williams’s sniping game could give Wales the spark they need in the closing stages if the match is close.

What have the coaches said?

France coach Fabien Galthie: “We are happy with the performance of the team against England. We are very satisfied with the potential of this team. The challenge is to exploit this potential to the full.

“Wales is a team with a strong culture, monstrous collective experience because they have an average age of 30 and more than 60 caps per player on average. They are competitors. Until Saturday, they lead the competition.”

Wales head coach Wayne Pivac: “We know we’re going to be in for a very big challenge. They have quality right across the park and they come up with some great plays. We’re going to have to have our wits about us.

“Obviously, they bring a lot of attacking threats and they’ve got a very good attacking kicking game. So I think our back three, in particular, are going to have a lot of work to do.”

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What are the odds?

France are favourites for this match, with odds of 5-13 on Bet365. A Wales win is 9-4 or you can get odds of 25-1 for a draw. However, Wales are still odds-on to win the title at 4-11, with France at 9-4.

If you fancy putting some money on the fixture, Bet365 have a welcome bonus of up to £100 in Bet Credits.

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Any interesting statistics?

  • Fourteen of the Wales starting XV have won at least one Six Nations Grand Slam. Louis Rees-Zammit is the only player who hasn’t.
  • If Wales win, Alun Wyn Jones will become the fourth man to win four Grand Slams in the professional era after France’s Fabien Pelous and Olivier Magne as well as England’s Jason Leonard. He would also join those players in having more Slams than Ireland and Scotland.
  • France have beaten more defenders on average than any other side in this Six Nations – 27 per match – while Wales have beaten the fewest (12.5).
  • France (1,131) and Wales (901) have averaged the most kicking metres per game in the 2021 championship. They have also averaged the most successful tackles, Wales with 175 and France with 161.
  • Wales have made 144 metres from their maul in the Six Nations – 85 more than any other side – while France’s 27 offloads are more than any other side.
  • Teddy Thomas has beaten 14 defenders from 14 carries – the best rate of any player with more than one carry.
Six Nations France v Wales Preview

Luke Pearce (Sportsfile/Getty Images)

What time does it kick off and is it on TV?

Wales v France, Saturday 20 March, Stade de France

This match kicks off at 8pm UK time (9pm local time in Paris) and it will be broadcast live on BBC One and S4C (UK) and Virgin Media (Ireland). There will also be live commentary on BBC Radio 5 Live Sports.

If you want to tune in from outside the UK & ireland, check out our ‘how to watch’ guide for wherever you are in the world.

It’s an all-RFU officiating team for this one with Luke Pearce as referee, Matthew Carley and Christophe Ridley the assistants, and Wayne Barnes the TMO.

What are the line-ups?

FRANCE: Brice Dulin; Teddy Thomas, Virimi Vakatawa, Gael Fickou, Damian Penaud; Matthieu Jalibert, Antoine Dupont; Cyril Baille, Julien Marchand, Mohamed Haouas, Romain Taofifenua, Paul Willemse, Dylan Cretin, Charles Ollivon (captain), Gregory Alldritt.

Replacements: Camille Chat, Jean-Baptiste Gros, Uini Atonio, Swan Rebbadj, Anthony Jelonch, Baptiste Serin, Romain Ntamack, Arthur Vincent.

WALES: Liam Williams; Louis Rees-Zammit, George North, Jonathan Davies, Josh Adams; Dan Biggar, Gareth Davies; Wyn Jones, Ken Owens, Tomas Francis, Adam Beard, Alun Wyn Jones (captain), Josh Navidi, Justin Tipuric, Taulupe Faletau.

Replacements: Elliot Dee, Nicky Smith, Leon Brown, Cory Hill, James Botham, Tomos Williams, Callum Sheedy, Uilisi Halaholo.

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