Friday night lights beckon historic clash
February 26, 2009
France captain Lionel Nallet and Wales skipper Ryan Jones pose with the Six Nations trophy on the eve of this year's Championship © Getty Images
The Six Nations resumes this weekend with the mouth-watering clash between France and Wales at the Stade de France - the first Championship match to be staged on a Friday night.
When the fixtures were announced it was clear that this match-up would be key to both side's title aspirations and as we reach round three in this year's battle there is no reason to think any different. The controversy surrounding the scheduling of the match will subside at the ludicrously late hour of 9pm on Friday when the focus will return to the story of this year's Championship.
Wales are two wins into their quest for back-to-back Grand Slams with victories over Scotland and England already to their name. Under the Friday night lights in Paris they face a France side that impressed in their opening defeat to Ireland but took a step back despite victory over Scotland last time out. As a result Les Bleus must win to keep their Championship hopes alive while history beckons Wales.
The key question on the mind of Wales coach Warren Gatland will be which France side will turn up this time around? The confident, free-flowing side that debuted in this year's Championship or the stilted and lacklustre team that laboured against Scotland?
Either way, Wales have reason to feel confident of securing their first win in Paris since their Grand Slam success in 2005. International Rugby Board Player of the Year Shane Williams returns to their side having sat out the bruising encounter with England with an ankle injury. To their credit they rode the loss of their master marksman, who has scored 45 tries in 62 Tests, but his return will be a cause for concern for France coach Marc Lievremont.
The return of Williams is the only change to the starting line-up while there is a place for fit-again Gavin Henson on the bench after he recovered from a calf strain. The presence of another the potential match-winner, who played his last international against France in Cardiff, on the bench could be the injection Gatland's side need to remain on course for yet more success.
Worthy of note is the fact that the ever-impressive Martyn Williams will make his 46th appearance in the Championship, overtaking Gareth Edwards to set a new Welsh record for the tournament. Expect the flanker to command his usual influence over proceedings.
Lievremont's preparations were not helped by the latest round of action in the Top 14, France's top flight. His prayers were answered to a degree with all but one of his players coming through unscathed - however, that player happened to be the only recognised fly-half in his squad, Lionel Beauxis, who succumbed to a pelvic injury.
The injury to Beauxis has forced Lievremont to gamble with selection, not for the first time, with a new half-back partnership. Benoit Baby is entrusted with the No.10 shirt while Morgan Parra gets the nod over Sebastien Tillous-Borde at scum-half. The 25-year-old Baby, more at home at centre of fullback, only has 8 caps to his name and has an equally inexperienced half-back partner in 20-year-old Parra who has made just five appearances for France since making his debut last year. Parra elevation comes with the added of the kicking duties.
Baby's switch to No.10 sees rampaging Stade Francais centre Matthieu Bastareaud called up to make his debut at outside centre. Lievremont has also opted to re-jig his back three with Maxime Medard reverting to fullback in place of Clement Poitrenaud and Julien Malzieu slotting in on the wing. Elsewhere, Sylvain Marconnet will equal Christian Califano's caps record of 72 for a prop when he packs down in the front-row while Sale's Sebastien Chabal returns to the starting line-up in the second-row.
Success breeds records and Wales have their sights set on another milestone as they prepare for the clash with France. They will be seeking to equal the record of both England and France in going nine Six Nations Championship matches without defeat. The victory over England at the Millennium Stadium earlier this month made it eight wins in a row for Wales - one at the end of the 2007 Championship, five in last year's Grand Slam campaign and two wins at the start of the 2009.
Victory over France in a titanic struggle in Cardiff last year wrapped up Wales' 10th Grand Slam and a similar success in Paris will leave them on course for an impressive repeat clean sweep. They weathered a real test of their credentials, perhaps the toughest they can expect, against England and their confidence will be high as a result.
Italy in Rome follow before a likely title decider against Ireland in Cardiff on the final weekend of the Championship but to look that far ahead would be to discount France's chances which would be dangerous. They have enough class to derail Wales' campaign but the step-up in performace required from them, and the lack of experience where it counts, is likely to count against them.
Wales will likely have too much power and pace for their hosts and perhaps most importantly will have the look of a refined team. However, it is defence that will likely decide this clash with such attacking talent on display. Expect Wales' Grand Slam bid to be intact come the witching hour on Friday to send those fans lucky enough to have made the trip off into the Paris night tired - but happy.
France: Maxime Medard (Toulouse); Julien Malzieu (Clermont-Auvergne), Mathieu Bastareaud (Stade Francais), Yannick Jauzion, Cedric Heymans (both Toulouse); Benoit Baby (Clermont-Auvergne), Morgan Parra (Bourgoin); Fabien Barcella (Biarritz), Dimitri Szarzewski, Sylvain Marconnet (both Stade Francais), Lionel Nallet (Castres, capt), Sebastien Chabal (Sale), Thierry Dusautoir (Toulouse), Fulgence Ouedraogo (Montpellier), Imanol Harinordoquy (Biarritz)
Replacements: Benjamin Kayser (Leicester), Thomas Domingo (Clermont-Auvergne), Romain Millo-Chluski (Toulouse), Louis Picamoles (Montpellier), Sebastien Tillous-Borde (Castres), Francois Trinh-Duc (Montpellier), Clement Poitrenaud (Toulouse
Wales: Lee Byrne (Ospreys); Leigh Halfpenny (Cardiff Blues), Tom Shanklin (Cardiff Blues), Jamie Roberts (Cardiff Blues), Shane Williams (Ospreys); Stephen Jones (Scarlets), Mike Phillips (Ospreys); Gethin Jenkins (Cardiff Blues), Matthew Rees (Scarlets), Adam Jones (Ospreys), Ian Gough (Ospreys), Alun-Wyn Jones (Ospreys), Ryan Jones (Ospreys, capt), Martyn Williams (Cardiff Blues), Andy Powell (Cardiff Blues).
Replacements: H Bennett (Ospreys), J Yapp (Cardiff Blues), L Charteris (Newport Gwent Dragons), D Jones (Scarlets), D Peel (Sale Sharks), J Hook (Ospreys), G Henson (Ospreys).
Referee: Mark Lawrence (SA)
Assistant referees: Alain Rolland (Ire), Simon McDowell (Ire) Television Match Official: Peter Fitzgibbon (Ire)
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