WALES welcome France to the Principality Stadium tonight knowing that a victory will likely set up a championship decider at Twickenham, in a fortnight’s time.
Similar to the French, Warren Gatland’s side enter tonight’s championship encounter unbeaten in their first two fixtures.
However, unlike the French, the Welsh are out of contention for a Grand Slam having drawn with an injury-ravaged Irish outfit in round one.
In recent history Wales have been notoriously slow starters in the Six Nations, with opening round defeats costing them a Grand Slam in 2013 and 2015.
However, the Welsh have a knack of getting stronger as the Championship progresses, with Gatland’s men expected to move up the gears tonight.
Wales’ game-plan has largely been a constant since victory at Twickenham in 2008, with “Warrenball” or “the pattern” as it is known in the Welsh camp, achieving two Grand Slams and a Championship.
However, as this philosophy produced dreadful results against the three superpowers of the Southern Hemisphere, the Welsh are refining their game plan.
Against Ireland and Scotland, Wales attempted to play with far more width than they have done in recent years. However, the men in red have not looked comfortable straying away from a structured game. For instance, they created no line-breaks in Dublin, despite winning 51% of the possession, and 55% of the territory.
Logically Gatland’s men should be far more comfortable playing wider against the French, as the Welsh coaches had an extra week to prepare.
However, seven members of the squad were released back to their English or French clubs, meaning that some of the preparation has been disrupted.
That is why Wales will likely revert to type against a dangerous, and unpredictable French outfit. Up to this point, Wales’ biggest strengths have been the set-piece, and their ability to win the collisions, which has coincided with the form of Jamie Roberts.
The young prop duo of Rob Evans and Samson Lee will look to get the better of a ferocious French scrum, which dominated the Irish at the Stade De France.
The inclusion of Wasps lock Bradley Davies in place of the injured Luke Charteris will not weaken the side, with the former Cardiff man’s abrasiveness well suited to countering a heavyweight French pack.
Arguably the most significant selection is the reinstatement of Ospreys blind-side flanker Dan Lydiate into the starting line-up. Fielding two out-and-out No 7s has not entirely convinced in the opening two rounds, with the physicality of Lydiate preferred to the footballing brilliance of Justin Tipuric.
Behind the scrum, the selection of the much-maligned Blues winger Alex Cuthbert in place of regional teammate Tom James has proved to be a controversial selection.
Former Exeter winger James did little wrong in his first two test matches in six years, however it seems that he has paid the price for failing to score a clear run-in against Scotland.
Before his loss of form Cuthbert was among the Northern Hemisphere’s deadliest finishers, and Gatland has opted to give Cuthbert another opportunity this weekend.
The French, under the guidance of former Toulouse boss Guy Noves, may be unbeaten thus far but have been far from convincing in the opening two rounds.
However, there is arguably less pressure on them, with the selection of Racing 92 scrum-half Maxime Machenaud adding a different dimension to the French game. Machenaud is a complete footballer, with his decision-making and peripheral vision key to getting Les Bleus’ attacking game going.
Wales will look to dominate the French physically, and with Lydiate, and Warburton reunited should exploit the absence of a traditional open-side in the French back-row, which should ensure quick ball.
If the Welsh can dominate the collisions it should be enough to secure the hosts a 10-point victory.