Cardiff - Runners-up spot is up for grabs when Wales host
France in Saturday's Six Nations finale, with both teams hyped to bring their
mixed tournament efforts to a happy ending.
Wales, on 11 points, are currently second behind
already-crowned champions Ireland, who play England for the Grand Slam.
France are in fourth on 10 points, with England in third on
a better points differential.
A bonus-point win for Wales would ensure second spot behind
the Irish, something not lost on coach Warren Gatland.
"For us, it is important this weekend that we play well
at home, get a win and finish second in the table," Gatland said.
"The exciting thing about the championship at the
moment is how close it is and how many teams think they are capable of winning
"If you look at the championship over the last couple
of years, there have been two significant away wins, one was England against
Wales in Cardiff last year and the other one the opening game when Ireland beat
France in Paris.
"That is the difference between winning the
championship and finishing third or fourth."
Gatland recalled captain Alun Wyn Jones in one of seven changes
to the team that beat winless Italy 38-14.
"We have picked a team and a squad we believe can
deliver this weekend against France," the Kiwi coach said, with Scarlets
front rowers Rob Evans and Ken Owens and flanker Josh Navidi also coming back
into the pack.
France coach Jacques Brunel made just three changes to the
side that held on to beat England 22-16 last week.
"Quiet force" Mathieu Bastareaud will captain
France after Guilhem Guirado was ruled out with a knee injury, the latter's
hooking spot taken by Adrien Pelissie.
Cedate Gomes Sa takes the place of Rabah Slimani at
tighthead prop, while Gael Fickou starts on the right wing, Benjamin Fall
moving to fullback in place of injured Hugo Bonneval, who failed a head injury
"Of course it's a game that can change
everything," said Brunel, who sidelined eight players after a
controversial alcohol-fuelled drinking session following an opening defeat in
"We know the context of the championship. We said that
our ambition was to match the best. Up until now we're not that far off but we
know that the result will have a bearing on our search for consistency. The
result will either legitimise our ambition or put the brakes on it."
Gatland was under no illusion about what France would bring
to the table.
"France have played well all competition. They played
well against Ireland in their first game, the first 40-50 minutes against
Scotland and were outstanding against England last weekend," he said.
"They were direct, a good defensive team and they are
going to be hard for us to break down.
"It is going to be a close encounter and a very
Gatland added: "For us, it is about working their
forward pack, keeping the ball on the pack, working through phases and trying
to take their legs away from them.
"It is about taking the Scotland model, they kept
playing and the French team ran out of a bit of steam. But they have improved
and you could see that in the way they played to the full 80 minutes against
Brunel warned that it was a "tough challenge"
awaiting his relatively novice French team.
"They are always complicated matches against the Welsh,
generally very intense, with very long sequences of play," said the
64-year-old who was forwards coach when France won the Grand Slam with victory
in the then-Millennium Stadium in 2002.
"We can't prepare the players for the noise," he
said of the traditionally deafening environment in the closed-roof stadium in
"Even if they've played little in this particular
stadium, the players are used to hostile environments away from home. They're
able to master that."
15 Leigh Halfpenny, 14 George North, 13 Scott Williams, 12 Hadleigh Parkes, 11 Liam Williams, 10 Dan Biggar, 9 Gareth Davies, 8 Taulupe Faletau, 7 Josh Navidi, 6 Justin Tipuric, 5 Alun Wyn Jones (captain), 4 Cory Hill, 3 Tomas Francis, 2 Ken Owens, 1 Rob Evans
Substitutes: 16 Elliot Dee, 17 Nicky Smith, 18 Samson Lee, 19 Bradley Davies, 20 Aaron Shingler, 21 Aled Davies, 22 Gareth Anscombe, 23 Steff Evans
15 Benjamin Fall, 14 Gael Fickou, 13 Mathieu Bastareaud (captain), 12 Geoffrey Doumayrou, 11 Remy Grosso, 10 Francois Trinh-Duc, 9 Maxime Machenaud, 8 Marco Tauleigne, 7 Yacouba Camara, 6 Wenceslas Lauret, 5 Sebastien Vahaamahina, 4 Paul Gabrillagues, 3 Cedate Gomes Sa, 2 Adrien Pelissie, 1 Jefferson Poirot
Substitutes: 16 Camille Chat, 17 Dany Priso, 18 Rabah Slimani, 19 Bernard Le Roux, 20 Mathieu Babillot, 21 Baptiste Couilloud, 22 Lionel Beauxis, 23 Geoffrey Palis