A pivotal match in terms of trajectory, and possibly the championship if either side can find real form after decidedly ordinary performances thus far. France have been unprepared to indulge in any romanticism and have instead bludgeoned their way to an iffy win over Scotland and a listless performance against Ireland to open up shop. Wales have shown little to excite since their opening 40 minutes in Cardiff in round 1, and yet somehow escaped with a similarly unconvincing result over a Scottish side who could, and should have won.
Les Bleus have been a confounding side to watch, playing with unfamiliar pragmatism and driven largely by sheer monstrousity rather than guile or panache. They were almost unacceptably disinterested in Dublin until they brought their steamrollers on in the second half, and by then the game was lost. It wasn’t far off their dreary and thoughtless effort against the Scots a week before. A home match against an off-kilter Welsh side seems hand picked to get them on track. Can they find inspiration or will they stutter again?
Just when we thought Philippe Saint-André had found a new lease in terms of consistency of selection, he goes and throws a spanner in the works. Mathieu Bastareaud has been arguably their best player, one tailormade for a route 1 game plan, and yet for reasons known only to Saint-André he finds himself on the bench this week, with Rémi Lamerat installed at outside centre. Scott Spedding has been less prominent but must also wonder what he has done to be dropped completely, with polar opposite Brice Dulin recalled in his place.
The other changes three are enforced. Pascal Papé has been sanctioned for his blatant act of thuggery on Jamie Heaslip, his squad place handed to Jocelino Suta, his engine room spot taken by massive Toulon piston Romain Taofifenua. Injuries to Rory Kockott and Teddy Thomas have made openings for Morgan Parra and Sofiane Guitoune, though it does appear that Kockott might have been dropped regardless after an ineffectual performance against Ireland.
Wales were only marginally better at Murrayfield than they were in Cardiff, somehow escaping with a win though Scotland were the more positive side. Despite that Warren Gatland has made only minor alterations, replacing out-of-form Richard Hibbard with Scott Baldwin, and discarding Jake Ball from the match day squad, with Luke Charteris promoted to start and Bradley Davies recalled to the reserves. Samson Lee is fit to resume duties at tighthead, with Aaron Jarvis shifted to the bench, a definite boost to the Welsh scrum.
George North has also been deemed sufficiently recovered from his controversial concussion against England to resume duties on the wing, and tellingly it’s Alex Cuthbert who gets the hook, with Liam Williams rewarded for good form with another chance in the run-on side. Cuthbert has been short of top form for several months having turned down a central contract might do well with a move abroad to recapture his zeal for the game.
Both sides will be desperate for a win but emotion alone won’t be enough. Wales haven’t given their dynamic midfielders a chance to get into the game, and without the spectre of Bastareaud ahead of them they’ll need to target that area to make dents in the French line. To do so the big men up front will have to be in the battle against a menacing pack hell bent on smashing them into submission. It’s a tough ask, and Les Bleus are categorically more vehement in their own backyard. Expect a fierce contest with massive collisions, but ultimately the French reserves will finish the job, doing just enough to edge away to a 6 point win.
FRANCE vs WALES
Saturday, February 28, 17:00 GMT, Paris
Referee: Jaco Peyper (SARU)
Assistants: J.P. Doyle (RFU) & Marius Mitrea (FIR)
TMO: Simon McDowell (IRFU)