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Preview: France v Wales {01/02/19}

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Six Nations 2019 starts under Friday night lights when France face Wales in what promises to be an absorbing showdown at the Stade de France.

There’s plenty of optimism surrounding a possible Welsh challenge for silverware this year but as the old cliche goes, it will be one game at a time for Warren Gatland’s men. This fixture in Paris, while winnable, cannot be underestimated as Les Bleus do look a threat on paper.

Form wise following November and it is differing stories for France and Wales, the former having lost their last outing against Fiji while Wales are currently enjoying a nine-match winning run in international rugby – two more victories and they would equal their record of 11.

The upcoming Six Nations contests, with no disrespect to their recent wins, increase in difficulty for Wales and that all starts in Paris. If, however, they come through the opener with a win, they’ll fancy their chances with home matches against England and Ireland to come in Rounds 3 and 5. Either side of the England clash in Cardiff are trips to Italy and Scotland where they’ll hope to further build confidence.

But right now the focus remains solely on France, who name a XV that could punish Wales if they click in front of their supporters. Young talents Romain Ntamack and Damian Penaud start at centre and wing respectively while it is Clermont duo Morgan Parra and Camille Lopez who steer the ship. However there are question marks over this team following that November loss to Fiji. How they respond will be interesting.

As mentioned Les Bleus cannot be written off and if the recent meetings between these two sides are anything to go by, it promises to be a close-run thing. Only once in the most recent eight games played out between them has there been a winning margin greater than nine points.

Wales therefore must be braced for a tough evening as they look to kick off with what could well be a campaign-defining result. They boast the quality but how much the absence of Taulupe Faletau and Ellis Jenkins will be felt is that nagging doubt we have regarding their hopes of an opening win.

Players to watch:

For France: Son of Emile, Romain Ntamack has been given an incredible opportunity to press his case for a long-term position in the French midfield. It’s somewhat ironic that on the week Wesley Fofana announced he would be retiring from Test rugby after the World Cup that head coach Jacques Brunel names a fresh-faced centre alongside him. Ntamack could well take over the Fofana mantle next year but right now it’s about forming a balanced centre combination with his senior colleague. If he can and Fofana stays fully fit then France will be a threat in 2019.

For Wales: We have mentioned him already in our Six predictions for the Six Nations piece and it’s hard to look past Tomos Williams again here. Despite Gareth Davies being cleared to feature, Cardiff Blues scrum-half Williams gets the starting nod in what is the biggest match of his career to date. Electric with ball in hand, he will look to impose his own game on France and make life as uncomfortable for Morgan Parra as possible. The more the ever-improving Williams enjoys possession at the Stade de France the greater Wales’ chances of an away win.

Head-to-head: Making his international debut for France at lock will be former Bulls forward Paul Willemse. The Montpellier man gets a stamp of approval from Brunel, who is clearly impressed with form at club level despite Montpol’s struggles. What a first-up face-off he’s landed though as Willemse goes up against one of the most experienced locks in the game, Alun-Wyn Jones. The evergreen Jones is crucial to Wales’ hopes of not only victory in Paris on Friday but also getting their hands on the Six Nations trophy for the first time since 2013.

Previous results:

2018: Wales won 14-13 in Cardiff
2017: France won 20-18 in Paris
2016: Wales won 19-10 in Cardiff
2015: Wales won 20-13 in Paris
2014: Wales won 27-6 in Cardiff
2013: Wales won 16-6 in Paris
2012: Wales won 16-9 in Cardiff
2011: France won 9-8 in Auckland

The teams:

France: 15 Maxime Medard, 14 Damian Penaud, 13 Wesley Fofana, 12 Romain Ntamack, 11 Yoann Huget, 10 Camille Lopez, 9 Morgan Parra, 8 Louis Picamoles, 7 Arthur Iturria, 6 Wenceslas Lauret, 5 Paul Willemse, 4 Sebastien Vahaamahina, 3 Uini Atonio, 2 Guilhem Guirado (c), 1 Jefferson Poirot
Replacements: 16 Julien Marchand, 17 Dany Priso, 18 Demba Bamba, 19 Felix Lambey, 20 Greg Alldritt, 21 Baptiste Serin, 22 Gael Fickou, 23 Geoffrey Doumayrou

Wales: 15 Liam Williams, 14 George North, 13 Jonathan Davies, 12 Hadleigh Parkes, 11 Josh Adams, 10 Gareth Anscombe, 9 Tomos Williams, 8 Ross Moriarty, 7 Justin Tipuric, 6 Josh Navidi, 5 Alun Wyn Jones (c), 4 Adam Beard, 3 Tomas Francis, 2 Ken Owens, 1 Rob Evans
Replacements: 16 Elliot Dee, 17 Wyn Jones, 18 Samson Lee, 19 Cory Hill, 20 Aaron Wainwright, 21 Gareth Davies, 22 Dan Biggar, 23 Owen Watkin

Date: Friday, February 1
Venue: Stade de France
Kick-off: 21:00 local (20:00 GMT)
Referee: Wayne Barnes (England)
Assistant Referees: Andrew Brace (Ireland), Brendon Pickerill (New Zealand)
TMO: Rowan Kitt (England)

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