Wales travel to Paris on Saturday night for a Grand Slam decider in the 2021 Guinness Six Nations after the most bizarre championship that has seen Wayne Pivac take his side from zero to hero in the space of a few months.
After a tough 2020 that saw the men in red finish fifth in the last Six Nations and then falter through the Autumn Nations Cup, Wales have strung together a remarkable run of four wins that have had our fair share of luck through red cards, refereeing decisions, tap tackles and missed touches.
Having said that, Wales have been clinical in attack, solid in defence and have seen vast improvements at a set piece that struggled to look amateur level, let alone international level, last season. You can only play what’s in front of you, and we have done that very well in pursuit of a fifth Grand Slam in 16 years.
France have had an equally interesting Six Nations, although for more off-field reasons, as eye-catching wins over Italy and Ireland were followed by a coronavirus outbreak that caused the postponement of a game with Scotland, and then a loss to England as they returned to action last week.
Les Bleus still know though that they can win the title if they prevent Wales from scoring on Saturday evening, and then beat Scotland comfortably in the re-arranged game next week, and they have the experience of doing the double over the Welshmen last season.
In order to make that happen Fabien Galthie has stuck with the XV that lost to England last week, resisting the temptation to bring Romain Ntamack in as he returns to fitness. He does recall Arthur Vincent to the bench though as he moves from a 6/2 split to a regular 5/3 setup.
France: Brice Dulin, Damian Penaud, Virimi Vakatawa, Gael Fickou, Teddy Thomas, Matthieu Jalibert, Antoine Dupont; Cyril Baille, Julian Marchand, Mohamed Haouas, Romain Taofifenua, Paul Willemse, Dylan Cretin, Charles Ollivon (c), Gregory Alldritt
Replacements: Camille Chat, Jean-Baptiste Gros, Uini Atonio, Swan Rebbadj, Anthony Jelonch, Baptiste Serin, Romain Ntamack, Arthur Vincent
Wayne Pivac has also resisted the temptation to make many changes to his starting XV, as he largely sticks with the side that has beaten England and Italy over the last two rounds.
The only change to the team that took the field in Rome last week sees Adam Beard start ahead of Cory Hill in the second row, with the Cardiff Blues man dropping to the bench.
He is joined there by Nicky Smith, who covers loosehead prop, James Botham as the back row option, and Tomos Williams returning to fitness to back up scrum-half.
Wales: Liam Williams, Louis Rees-Zammit, George North, Jon Davies, Josh Adams, Dan Biggar, Gareth Davies; Wyn Jones, Ken Owens, Tomas Francis, Adam Beard, Alun Wyn Jones (c), Josh Navidi, Justin Tipuric, Taulupe Faletau
Replacements: Elliot Dee, Nicky Smith, Leon Brown, Cory Hill, James Botham, Tomos Williams, Callum Sheedy, Uilisi Halaholo
The question mark for France is how they react to last week’s defeat to Twickenham, whether they roll over as they have done previously or are now built of sterner stuff and come out keen to bounce back. Assuming it’s the latter, then their style of play will be brutal up front and skillful out the back, with a Shaun Edwards defence to base their game off.
For Wales the choice is then to try and outplay the French, as England did with success last week, or fall back on a kicking and pressing style that perhaps a midfield line-up of Gareth Davies, Dan Biggar and Jon Davies are more accustomed to.
Either way, accuracy, intensity and discipline will be key, The defensive lapses that cost us in October can’t be repeated, but we took our chances well in Paris on that occasion. It’s a tough take, but it’s far from impossible. There’s a Grand Slam on the line, after all.