Saturday will see Wales cross the channel to take on France in their 3rd Six Nations match at the Stade de France.
In the last ten years tournaments, Wales have won four championships, three of which have been grand slams, and France have won three championships, including one grand slam.
Their successes aren’t restricted to Europe. The two teams faced each other as semi-finalists in the 2011 World Cup, a game that saw France win and get themselves through to the final which they were unlucky to lose against New Zealand. More recently in 2014, France beat Australia and Wales defied the history books by securing a win over South Africa.
So it looks like this year’s French-Welsh clash is going to be a classic, right? Well, probably not.
It’s fair to say that over recent years both the French and Welsh fans have got used to seeing their teams churning out some less than exciting wins. Both sides could rarely be accused of taking games by the scruff of the neck.
I wouldn’t be the first to say that flair has been replaced by dogged pragmatism. The French game in particular has become about big men taking ball in hand and running at the opposition.
This style of play can lead to encounters where a team’s aim is not to tire as quickly as their opposition. Furthermore with scrums becoming ever more tedious this makes for extremely frustrating viewing for fans and spectators.
When the question “which French team will turn up?” is asked, eyes can be heard rolling across the world. It may be the ultimate cliché in modern rugby but if there’s one thing that’s consistent about the French team it’s their inconsistency. In 2010 they won a grand slam and three years later they found themselves holding the wooden spoon.
Some of us had dared to dream that in Wesley Fofana and Mathieu Bastareaud France may have found a steady centre partnership at last, with a combination of 120kg of French brute force alongside the fleet-footed Fofana. However, despite having beaten more defenders and made more carries than any other member of the French team so far in the 2015 competition, the Beast has been benched.
The scoreboards from Philippe Saint-André’s sides performances so far in this championship have been nothing out of the ordinary. But look beyond the scores and you see something quite different.
Perhaps the most worrying thing for Wales will be how France dominated the second half against Ireland in terms of both possession and territory. You don’t have to be an expert in Welsh rugby to know that this is something Sam Warburton’s men often struggle to do.
In the same vein Wales look like a team full of rugby-ready bodies with very few rugby brains. Calls for the return of James Hook to the international stage may have grown tiresome but it’s important to remember that these clamours weren’t a result of being a legend of Welsh rugby like Adam Jones. It was a reflection on the exasperation felt by Welsh fans that in recent years they haven’t had a plan B. The opposition knows what’s coming and Wales just have to hope they can overcome the obstacles put in their way.
All hail Liam Williams, at last the utility back that Wales have been asking for. Williams has become a necessity for the Welsh team and his inclusion forces previous regular fixture Alex Cuthbert to the bench. With Williams and North, who at just 22 years old will become the youngest player to receive 50 caps, on the wings, a reshuffled France will have to work hard to stifle their speed.
The challenge that Wales will face on Saturday will be getting the ball to their backs. France have been very successful at the line out but Wales have brought Luke Charteris into the starting XV and at 6′ 9″ Gatland has done what he can to improve the chances of Wales leaving line outs with the ball.
So the weekend promises a game between two teams that look a lot less than the sum of their parts. In all likelihood the match will be forward-dominated battering-ram bore fest devoid of any semblance of skill and subtlety. But with the likes of Fofana on the pitch maybe, just maybe, both teams will come out all guns blazing and if that happens, then we’re in for a treat.
Ellie is a freelance sports writer and blogger based in Wales. Follow her on twitter @caddicksport