IT’S make-or-break for Wales tomorrow as they prepare for their crunch Six Nations showdown with France.
Gatland’s side have had an indifferent start to their campaign, losing to England despite taking a good lead into half time, and unconvincingly scraping past Scotland 26-23. They lie level on points with France in the Six Nations table and the only certainty that can be taken from Saturday’s game is the losing side will be out of the hunt for this year’s Six Nations crown.
Wales have chopped and changed their side during the Six Nations so far and Gatland has not changed tack for the clash at the Stade de France, making four changes. Cardiff Blues’ winger Alex Cuthbert has been dropped completely from the squad with Liam Williams and the returning George North on the wings.
North will have a point to prove after he failed to justify a controversial selection in the loss against England, suffering concussion and being at fault for at least one of the tries. Prop Samson Lee, who was also concussed in the England defeat, returns at tight-head replacing Aaron Jarvis.
The Lee change is just one of the three pack changes with Scott Baldwin replacing Richard Hibbard at hooker and Luke Charteris replacing Jake Ball in the second row. The ever-present Sam Warburton is still in the pack at flanker and his influence will be key, especially up against his French counterpart – flanker and captain Thierry Dusautoir. Warburton scored a vital try in last year’s clash and will be equalling Ryan Jones’ record of 33 Welsh tests as captain when he leads his side out at the Stade de France tomorrow.
But Warburton’s battle with Dusautior won’t be the only key head-to-head on the pitch, as Rhys Webb and Morgan Parra fight to give their backs good ball. Webb has been threatened with man marking whilst Parra has been recalled to the French side to provide stability, something that he might struggle with facing pressure from a mobile Welsh pack.
France’s decision to omit their monster centre Mathieu Bastareaud might be shrewd, but there is no question that France are a scarier and more physical team with his presence. His replacement, Remy Lamerat, will be handed his sixth cap and French Coach Philippe Saint-Andre will be praying his inexperience doesn’t show against the formidable Welsh centre partnership of Jamie Roberts and Jonathan Davies.
France will be looking to put right their 27-6 defeat at the Millennium Stadium last year, which equalled Wales’s record for their biggest winning margin against their French counterparts. Leigh Halfpenny dispatched five penalties and France’s discipline will be key as they try to avoid a repeat. Halfpenny is probably the best goal kicker in world rugby right now and France can ill-afford to give him cheap kicks. But the returning Parra is not a shabby place kicker either so Wales will need to cut back on the 13 penalties a game they are averaging this Six Nations campaign.
Nothing less than a Six Nations crown was expected of Wales this year, with England young and inexperienced, France fading and Ireland without their now-retired stalwart Brian O’Driscoll. But that hangs in the balance after the England defeat on the opening weekend. With the Grand Slam out of the question, there is no bigger test playing France in their own backyard with your Six Nations’ life on the line.
The Cardiffian’s prediction: France 13, Wales 17