France v Wales, Stade de France, Saturday, 2.30pm, Virgin Media, UTV
While Dublin rocks to the twin highs of St Patrick’s weekend and the build-up to a shot at Grand Slam glory against shellshocked England, Paris may or may not pause its civil unrest to celebrate the returning heroes who rendered the English thus. The pension age is exercising French politicians and protesters at the moment, but their rugby team plays as if retirement is the last of their concerns.
Meanwhile Wales arrive after their first win of the Six Nations, in round four, against Italy. Bonus-point wins in Rome are not to be sniffed at these days, but rarely has a side claimed one after being so outplayed. Wales have veered between youth and experience this championship, making 25 changes, more than six a match on average, as the veterans give way to the tyros who give way to the veterans.
Alun Wyn Jones, all 157 Wales caps of him, is one of three returning centurions. Wales boast 997 caps in their starting lineup – which is second only to the 1,013 caps fielded by New Zealand for their opener against Argentina at the 2015 World Cup – although the 952 Wales fielded for the opener against Ireland might be deemed relatively more experienced given there have been four sets of caps handed out since.
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The main difference between that team and this, caps-wise, is the replacement at fullback of Liam Williams with Louis Rees-Zammit. The former was injured against Italy, but the latter is playing his way back from an injury of his own and starts at fullback for the third time in his Wales career.
George North and Dan Biggar return more than 100 caps each to the party. North teams up with Nick Tompkins in the centre to replace the youngsters Joe Hawkins and Mason Grady. Aaron Wainwright is the sixth change to the team that beat Italy. He will line up in the backrow alongside Taulupe Faletau, who will become the latest to join Wales’s 100-cap club.
Nothing speaks more clearly of the disparity in confidence between Paris’s two teams than the lack of chopping and changing in the French camp. France started this championship as one of the more inexperienced outfits, with only Gaël Fickou boasting more than 50 caps, but they make just the two changes to the side that lay waste to England at Twickenham.
Uini Atonio returns from suspension to assume his customary position at tighthead and joins Fickou in the 50-cap club, while Romain Taofifénua replaces the injured Paul Willemse at lock. And why would they tinker unnecessarily? They are the second best team in the world and are not going for a Grand Slam themselves only because they played the best in Dublin.
There is still French hope of a successful defence of their title. All they can do is beat Wales, preferably with a bonus point, and hope the wounds they inflicted to England’s pride last weekend prove more inspiring than deflating. Actually they would have to prove transformative because France need England to overcome Ireland. Les Blues have four match points to make up on Andy Farrell’s men. If the teams are level they also need the two results to improve their points difference relative to Ireland’s by 21.
Normally when so many ifs are involved, a team knows their fate. France have never been above a swing in fortunes themselves after an outlandish result, but it would have to be quite the implosion to offer Wales any hope of escaping the lower reaches of the table.
More realistically, bar the usual platitudes towards focusing only on the next match, Wales’s ambitions stretch little farther than avoiding the wooden spoon. This relies on Scotland beating Italy at home, which should happen but is not the gimme it might have been in years gone by.
At least Wales will know before kickoff what they need to do to achieve that. For France it will be a case of jouer and see. That may not prove enough, but if the country is looking for a reason to cheer its rugby team is as compelling as any. – Guardian
FRANCE: Thomas Ramos; Damian Penaud, Gael Fickou, Jonathan Danty, Ethan Dumortier; Romain Ntamack, Antoine Dupont (capt); Cyril Baille, Julien Marchand, Uini Atonio; Thibaud Flament, Romain Taofifenua; Francois Cros, Charles Ollivon, Gregory Alldritt.
Replacements: Peato Mauvaka, Reda Wardi, Sipili Falatea, Bastien Chalureau, Sekou Macalou, Maxime Lucu, Yoram Moefana, Melvyn Jaminet.
WALES: Louis Rees-Zammit; Josh Adams, George North, Nick Tompkins, Rio Dyer; Dan Biggar, Rhys Webb; Wyn Jones, Ken Owens (Scarlets, capt), Tomas Francis; Adam Beard, Alun Wyn Jones; Aaron Wainwright, Justin Tipuric, Taulupe Faletau.
Replacements: Bradley Roberts, Gareth Thomas, Dillon Lewis, Dafydd Jenkins, Tommy Reffell, Tomos Williams, Owen Williams, L Halfpenny.