Preview: Wales v France

It's been four years since France last beat Wales and just to add fuel to the fire Warren Gatland has spent this week taking pot shots at the Top 14.

In fairness to the Kiwi, who claimed that no Welsh player has come back from France a better player, most supporters of les Bleus are well aware of the obstacles to international rugby which come from the club game.

Still, Clermont coach Franck Azéma probably won't enjoy hearing that Gatland expects Jonathan Davies to get back to his best once he leaves the Massif Central.

Davies was one of those who was an injury doubt for this game, but has been passed fit to line up alongside Jamie Roberts in the Welsh midfield.

The other French-based player in the squad, Luke Charteris, was not so fortunate, and will sit this one out, replaced by Bradley Davies.

Still, Wales are in better position fitness-wise than France, albeit with Leigh Halfpenny still absent and Rhys Webb only fit for club action this weekend.

Guy Novès meanwhile has had to deal with an injury crisis on the wing, where he was already without Yoann Huget, Benjamin Fall and Rémy Grosso, and this week lost Teddy Thomas and Marvin O'Connor.

Wesley Fofana may well have slotted in had he been fit, but instead it will be debutant Djibril Camara who gets his chance.

Largely forgotten as he was called up just before the David Smith debacle, it was a surprise to see Camara preferred to club colleague Hugo Bonneval.

A great athlete, he will certainly be tested by Gatland and the Welsh backline, particularly if George North continues his return to form.

Gatland made a couple of intriguing changes for this one, with Alex Cuthbert coming in for fellow Cardiff winger Tom James, while Dan Lydiate replaces Justin Tipuric in the back row.

If that is an indication that Gatland expects a real battle in the contact area, Novès clearly thinks likewise, with Antoine Burban starting for France, joining Wenceslas Lauret as arguably the best two breakdown players available.

There are some other changes for France, with Maxime Machenaud rewarded for his display off the bench against Ireland, as are Rabah Slimani and Paul Jedrasiak.

Just as exciting is the return of François Trinh-Duc on the bench. Recovered from a broken leg, the Montpellier fly-half appears to be much more a part of Novès' plans than he ever was under Philippe Saint-André.

Players to Watch

For Wales: Racing fans will have watched the Six Nations wondering who the devastating midfield battering ram playing for Wales was. Jamie Roberts is certainly one of those who failed to produce his best form in the Top 14, but he's been as good as any back in the Six Nations so far. France's defence improved against Ireland after a shaky display against Italy, but there is no question that Roberts will run hard and often at Jules Plisson.

Meanwhile in the pack there will be a lot of pressure on Bradley Davies to fill the boots of Luke Charteris. Long-time rivals for the starting spot alongside Alun-Wyn Jones, Charteris has moved ahead in the pecking order, most notably thanks to his ability to disrupt in the lineout and at mauls. Under Guy Novès France have tried to be less reliant on their rolling maul, but if Wales struggle to deal with it, there's no question they'll give it a go.

For France: Under Philippe Saint-André France seemed to change their half-back pairing virtually every week so Guy Novès has done his best to be more consistent in selection. Still, the way Maxime Machenaud ran the show off the bench against Ireland meant that he had to be given the starting spot against Wales. Sébastien Bézy offers a lot of energy off the bench, but Machenaud will be keen to show that he can be the leader we've seen at Racing over the last season and a half.

In the pack the return of Antoine Burban is both logical and surprising. The standout player in Stade Français' charge for the Top 14 title last season, his international career has largely been blighted by injuries at the most unfortunate times. Still, Novès said before Ireland that picking two fetchers was the equivalent of accepting you are going to be defending for much of the game. Having done so here, it appears the French coach is not expecting to spend much of the game on the front foot. If France are to have a chance, Burban needs to be at his best, both protecting Stade colleague Jules Plisson, and slowing down Welsh ball at the breakdown.

Head-to-head: Despite two wins from two, France go into this game as heavy underdogs, and if they are to have any chance of an upset, they will need to dominate at scrum-time. The loss of Eddy Ben Arous is a blow, but Rabah Slimani was excellent off the bench against Ireland. Rob Evans has been fantastic since wresting the Wales loosehead jersey away from Gethin Jenkins but this could be his toughest test yet. On the other side though, Wales will fancy their chances as Samson Lee takes on the hugely-inexperienced Jefferson Poirot, with debutant Vincent Pelo waiting in the wings.

Previous results:

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
2011: France won 28-9 in Paris
2010: France won 26-20 in Cardiff
2009: France won 21-16 in Paris
2008: Wales won 29-12 in Cardiff
2007: France won 34-7 in Cardiff

Prediction: Wales are a team designed to suffocate and overwhelm lesser sides. At the moment, France are finding their feet under Guy Novès, and don't look ready to take down a well-oiled machine like Wales. The last time the sides met in Cardiff it was over by half-time. This may be closer but Wales should have too much. Wales by 8!

The teams:

Wales: 15 Liam Williams, 14 Alex Cuthbert, 13 Jonathan Davies, 12 Jamie Roberts, 11 George North, 10 Dan Biggar, 9 Gareth Davies, 8 Taulupe Faletau, 7 Sam Warburton, 6 Dan Lydiate, 5 Alun Wyn Jones, 4 Bradley Davies, 3 Samson Lee, 2 Scott Baldwin, 1 Rob Evans
Replacements: 16 Ken Owens, 17 Gethin Jenkins, 18 Tomas Francis, 19 Jake Ball, 20 Justin Tipuric, 21 Lloyd Williams, 22 Rhys Priestland, 23 Gareth Anscombe

France: 15 Maxime Médard, 14 Virimi Vakatawa, 13 Maxime Mermoz, 12 Jonathan Danty, 11 Djibril Camara, 10 Jules Plisson, 9 Maxime Machenaud, 8 Damien Chouly, 7 Antoine Burban, 6 Wenceslas Lauret, 5 Alexandre Flanquart, 4 Paul Jedrasiak, 3 Rabah Slimani, 2 Guilhem Guirado (c), 1 Jefferson Poirot
Replacements: 16 Camille Chat, 17 Vincent Pelo, 18 Uini Atonio, 19 Yoann Maestri, 20 Loann Goujon, 21 Sébastien Bézy, 22 François Trinh-Duc, 23 Gaël Fickou

Date: Friday, February 26
Venue: Millennium Stadium, Cardiff
Kick-off: 20:05 GMT
Referee: Wayne Barnes (RFU)
Assistant Referees: JP Doyle (RFU), Luke Pearce (RFU)
TMO: Shaun Veldsman (SARU)