The 2019 Guinness Six Nations kicks off in Paris on Friday night as Warren Gatland leads Wales to France for a huge opening round fixture.
This year’s tournament is set to be one of the closest yet, with three of the the top four in the World Rugby Rankings competing, while there is the added dimension of this Six Nations being the last before September’s Rugby World Cup in Japan.
Wales come into this campaign on a run of nine straight victories stretching back to last March and continuing through the Summer Tour of the Americas and the unbeaten Autumn Internationals, with South Africa and Australia falling by the wayside.
France were also defeated on that run, as a try from Liam Williams and the boot of Leigh Halfpenny secured a 14-13 victory on the Principality Stadium, our fifth win over Les Bleus in the last six Six Nations encounters.
The only defeat in that period come on our last trip to the Stade de France in the year before last, as the home side snatched a 20-18 win in what would be the infamous ‘100 minute game’.
In the last year there have been some turbulent times for the French national rugby team though, with coach Jacques Brunel opting to change his backroom staff almost every time the squad gets together, and struggling to nail down a consistent starting XV.
While Wales have gone on a run of nine straight wins, France have managed just one in the last seven, as a 3-0 series defeat in New Zealand last summer was followed by a loss at home to South Africa to kick of the Autumn. Argentina were beaten 28-13, but defeat at the hands of Fiji left the national team with questions to answer.
Brunel has made seven changes from that team that lost to the Pacific Islanders, with debuts handed to second row Paul Willemse, who has qualified to play for Les Bleus on residency, and inside Romain Ntamack, who keeps Mathieu Bastareaud out of the squad at inside centre.
At half-back Morgan Parra plays his first Six Nations game for four years, and will pair up with Camille Lopez for the first time since Wales travelled to Paris in February 2015 as the Clermont fly-half is selected on the back of some strong club form.
Toulouse scrum-half Antoine Dupont is the surprise admission, with Baptiste Serin on the bench, but there is an experienced spine through Guilhem Guirado, Louis Picamoles, Wesley Fofana and Maxime Medard.
However, looking to the bench and there is undoubtedly an inexperienced feel with only 88 caps between the replacements, 41 of which belong to Gael Fickou. The forward options have just a total of 14 caps.
France: Maxime Medard, Damian Penaud, Wesley Fofana, Romain Ntamack, Yoann Huget, Camille Lopez, Morgan Parra; Jefferson Poirot, Guilhem Guirado (c), Uini Atonio, Sebastien Vahaamahina, Paul Willemse, Wenceslas Lauret, Arthur Iturria, Louis Picamoles
Replacements: Julien Marchand, Dany Priso, Demba Bamba, Felix Lambey, Gregory Alldritt, Baptiste Serin, Gael Fickou, Geoffrey Doumayrou
Whereas France have been chopping and changing their side though, Wales are beginning to look very settled as Warren Gatland makes only three changes to the side that beat South Africa in the final Autumn International.
Nicky Smith, who has not played for the Ospreys since before Christmas, is left out with Rob Evans starting at loosehead, Ellis Jenkins’ knee injury keeps him sidelined so club team-mate Josh Navidi starts at flanker, while Gareth Davies and Tomos Williams swap places between the starting XV and bench at scrum-half.
Injuries to Taulupe Faletau, Aaron Shingler, Rhys Patchell, Scott Williams and Leigh Halfpenny, as well as the aforementioned Jenkins and Smith, keep them sidelined, while Dan Biggar and Cory Hill only make the replacements.
Aaron Wainwright makes the bench ahead of Thomas Young, as Wales have 191 caps between their substitutes ready to come on and make a difference late in the game.
Wales: Liam Williams, George North, Jonathan Davies, Hadleigh Parkes, Josh Adams, Gareth Anscombe, Tomos Williams; Rob Evans, Ken Owens, Tomas Francis, Adam Beard, Alun Wyn Jones (c), Josh Navidi, Justin Tipuric, Ross Moriarty
Replacements: Elliot Dee, Wyn Jones, Samson Lee, Cory Hill, Aaron Wainwright, Gareth Davies, Dan Biggar, Owen Watkin
Looking at the game purely from a form perspective, Wales are the undoubted favourites in the form that they are in with the settled side they can field, against a French team in seeming disarray and down on confidence.
However, going to the Stade de France is always a challenge, with Warren Gatland’s men having enjoyed home comforts for much of their unbeaten run, while the weather seems to suggest a cold and wet evening awaits in Paris.
France have weight in their side up front, naming what many suggest is the biggest pack the Six Nations have ever seen, while they have undoubted individual talent in their backline.
For Wales to win they have to trust their defensive processes, which should be good enough to overcome any sort of one dimensional Les Bleus power game, covering offloads and working hard on the floor to win the breakdown.
Then it’s down to the three-quarter line to get the attack going, and while moving the ball in phase play will be important, taking advantage of first phase ball and broken play may well be where the game is won and lost.