The third round of the RBS 6 Nations tournament gets underway in the pleasant surroundings of the Millennium Stadium, Cardiff where Wales entertain a France team who have being truly an enigma again in the championship even though they have two wins already in the tournament. A potential arm wrestle or an expansive rugby contest? Hawkeye Sidekick is hoping for the latter.
Maxine Medard’s late try to clinch victory for France over Ireland at Stade De France last time out suggested that a massive corner was turned by Le Bleu. A victory over Ireland has provided much needed belief and confidence ahead of this pivotal fixture as they showed precious little against Ireland for long intervals who stifled France at the breakdown and the kick game pinned Le Bleu deep into their territory.
The French team on paper has a youthful look. The pack looks full of energy and their scrum looks formidable with the likes of Slimani and Guirado in their ranks. The scrum could play a pivotal role for France to create the platform. France pride themselves in their scrummaging and will look to expose a Welsh front row who to be fair have being shown signs of improvement during this tournament. It will be a compelling battle and one which will be a decisive indicator of which way this contest will go.
The lineout options for both sides look pretty even. Jedrasiak and Flanquart are good options and with Chouly as a conceivably third lineout option, France look well setup to challenge. Wales’ Alun Wyn Jones is supreme but he will need Bradley Davies to be on top form to provide lineout stability for the hosts. A slight edge for France in this department given that Chartertis is a massive player for Wales in the set-piece.
The back row battle should be absolutely intriguing. Tipuric has paid the price for a lack of balance in the Welsh back row as the ever reliable Dan Lydiate comes into the pack allowing Warburton to spoil and compete at the breakdown. Faletau at eight has being immense in the tournament with his ball carrying and tackle count top notch. Ireland exposed potential problems in the French breakdown and Wales have the edge in this department despite the pace and power of Lauret and Burban in the ranks.
The half-back battle talking point is whether Plisson can handle the pressure of going away from home and producing a performance. He has shown flashes of brilliance with ball in hand but he needs to be more cohesive to launch his three quarters this weekend, otherwise Wales will gobble up French attacking lines with ease with chop tackles galore. This requirement is not helped by a change in scrum-half where Machenaud is added to the starting lineup, a lack of relationship and understanding potentially gives Wales an edge where Davies and Biggar have played with confidence throughout.
The collisons in the three quarters will be the highlight of this contest. Jamie Roberts barrelling in on Danty will shake the very foundations of the Millennium Sradium and vice versa. Mermoz and Davies provide the subtle game running lines to unlock defenses and it will be interesting to see if the offload game can be sprung. 50/50 contest here and it all depends on which pack creates the necessary platform.
The wings and full back options speak creativity and ability to create try scoring opportunities. George North’s try against Scotland showed that the Northampton Saints players is back to top form. The inclusion of Alex Cuthbert for Tom James provides pace and threat as well but questions on defensive duties could be posed by France with kicks in behind the Cardiff Blues back. Vakatawa and Camara provide width and try scoring ability. Vakatawa is a try scoring machine from close range and will fancy this contest if the stadium elements are shut out. Medard and Williams are dynamic ball carriers and one hopes both players will look to come into the line with attacking intent.
Both teams have enough ability to launch an expansive contest. France would relish an unstructured contest more than Wales so hoping an early visitor score will spring Wales into a more attacking style. France are being written off by some quarters but I suspect that Le Bleu have a massive game in them this weekend. The Ireland win cannot be underestimated and provided that the half-backs provide direction and cohesion, France will be extremely tough to beat.
Wales will be put under pressure in the front five. If they can stem this challenge, their formidable back row should win the breakdown contest. A tentative vote goes to Wales on the basis that they have shown more consistency in their first two games but France are an enigmatic bunch and do not be surprised if they caused the upset if the game becomes unstructured in the second half. Hoping for an offloading contest to kick off this tournament weekend of fixtures in the right direction.
Verdict: Wales by three points in an entertaining open contest