We should, had COVID-19 not got in the way, be toasting this year’s Six Nations Champion by the time referee Luke Pearce blows for time on Saturday in Paris. If Wales complete their Grand Slam journey and beat France, then we will indeed be toasting all things in Red. However, should they come unstuck in France then it gets complicated and once more it becomes a two horse race between Wales and Les Bleus only to be decided once Wayne Barnes blows the final whistle in Paris next Friday night. For France to emerge victorious they will have to beat both Wales and Scotland with a bonus point, while at the same time denying Wales a bonus point this Saturday. Failing that it all comes down to points differences and everyone getting out their calculators. In short, nothing is guaranteed and Super Saturday’s final match carries with it plenty of suspense and what ifs.
Wales must surely be feeling confident as they head undefeated to Paris, as well as having made a handy points haul in Rome last weekend. Italy it must be said were rather weak opponents so Wales were not exactly tested ahead of a very tricky fixture on Saturday, but they certainly looked well drilled in their approach to the Italian game – traits they are likely to bring to their biggest encounter since their World Cup semi-final encounter with South Africa.
France looked good for the first sixty minutes against England last week, but much like Scotland the four week hiatus from Six Nations rugby caught up with them in the final quarter where they started to look rather puffed against a shiny English side that seemed able to take the intensity of the match comfortably in their stride. France had a strong rally in the final five minutes that looked like they were just about to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat, but their chief magician Antoine Dupont fumbled the ball forward in the dying minute and France kissed their Grand Slam ambitions goodbye. With two games left, their sole focus must be on denying Wales the Grand Slam and keeping their own Six Nations silverware dreams alive. It’s going to be a tall order, even in Paris but this French side have shown that they do have that composure when they need it most, especially now they are match fit once more. The Championship couldn’t ask for a better 80 minutes of nerve wracking tension for fans and players alike.
France vs Wales – Saturday, March 20th – Paris
Of Relative Strengths
What do the numbers mean you may ask, especially when you consider that these are two very good teams chasing silverware? Wales may have more confidence and be feeling slightly more pumped given their run up to this point than France who perhaps are not feeling as invincible even on home turf. The numbers indicate though where the two sides have their greater strengths. For Wales we feel they have the edge in the front and second rows and the blindside flanker position. For France we feel their offerings in the backs from scrum half to fullback is the stronger unit, as gifted as Wales are in some of those positions. But hang on we hear you say where is 7 and 8? They are not included as for both sides they balance each other out. France’s openside flanker and number eight combination of Charles Ollivon and Gregory Aldritt is every bit as good as Wales’ Justin Tipuric and Taulupe Faletau – in short there is nothing to choose between the two sides here.
We think Wales are going to dominate the set pieces and France the back play. The two sides are likely to be even in matters of open play and overall Wales are likely to be the more disciplined side when it comes to keeping on the right side of Luke Pearce’s whistle. Do the maths and if you take out passion and emotion, the numbers would give Wales the slightest edge. However, there is still this nagging doubt that Wales’ fairy tale ride has got to end at some point and France are the most likely party spoilers that the Welsh dragon will face this year. It’s our belief that France have it all to do on Saturday and Wales simply have to stay the course and keep their wits about them. Either way it still looks like some pretty big dice are being rolled on Saturday afternoon in Paris and we won’t be laying any bets – it’s just that close.
The return of the Cat
French Coach Fabien Galthie enjoys the luxury of a problem most Coaches would dearly love to have. When you have two genuine World Class Hookers who do you choose? Much has been made in the media of France’s neckless wonder Camille Chat, but Galthie has stuck with Julien Marchand in the starting role for Saturday’s match. It’s the right call, Chat brings that X-factor and body crushing impact you need from a replacement front rower, while Marchand will get through a mountain of work quietly, efficiently and often with spectacular results for the first three quarters. You felt that Chat could have been brought on a bit earlier in the England game, but you still couldn’t fault an outstanding shift from Marchand. They’ll be up against it in the form of Wales’ Ken Owens who has been superb for the Men in Red, but if Elliott Dee comes off the bench sooner rather than later expect to see Chat make his appearance. If that proves to be the case we fear that France are likely to take complete control of front row proceedings at that point as well as causing havoc in broken play.
The Stats Master
We feel that we owe Adam Beard an apology. As regular readers know we’ve never really rated the Welsh lock, and if anything found him rather anonymous, an opinion shared by many others. But here’s an interesting fact Beard’s numbers in the Championship make for impressive reading even if you’re not actually noticing him producing them on the pitch. He’s made the second highest number of passes by a second rower in the Championship (Italy’s David Sisi holds that honor) and ranks second in lineout steals alongside CJ Stander, Tadgh Beirne and Maro Itoje. If you actually look across the entire player statistics for this year’s Championship Beard features highly in all the positive numbers. We were delighted to see Cory Hill back in action last week, but he’s going to have to work extra hard this year to unseat Beard and his quiet efficiency.
A very healthy rivalry
The architect of Wales’ defeat in this same fixture last year, Romain Ntamack, makes his return from injury once more on the bench. However, in his absence Matthieu Jalibert has really come of age, leaving French Coach Fabien Galthie with another delicious dilemma when it comes to selection time. There is no question that Jalilbert has taken the opportunities given to him with both hands and matured into a genuine world class fly half. It would be hard to argue against him not being Ntamack’s equal if not better than the Toulouse playmaker based on current form. France will need to develop both these exceptional players for the World Cup, but balancing big match game time for both of them is the kind of headache most national team Coaches would dearly love to have.
Six Nations frequent flyers
French winger Damian Penaud is no stranger to the razzle dazzle of Test Rugby, but newcomer Welshman Louis Rees-Zammit has proven that all the hype surrounding his debut in the International Arena was fully justified. Consequently the contest between two of Test Rugby’s fastest men will be something to savor on Saturday. Penaud is more of an offload specialist and breaking the gain line from loose play, whereas Rees-Zammit’s all out speed and rather remarkable footballing skills have been a revelation this tournament. Two very different but equally gifted players should provide us with a genuine spectacle of attacking rugby as well as making our sport give its rival the so called “beautiful game” a genuine run for its money on Saturday.
So the question on everyone’s lips is who is going to win? Will it be Wales and the Championship draws to a conclusion this Saturday, or will France claim the spoils and with it keep us in suspense till next Friday? Coming into this Championship it was clear that France were going to be the side to beat, but it’s been Wales steady but impressive course that has perhaps stayed with us the most. France have the talent and skill in bucket loads but Wales have shown a resolve and sense of purpose that has Champions in waiting written all over it. We didn’t see it coming but now we have it’s hard to argue against Wales’ deserved claims to the title this Saturday. A side that has gone from strength to strength as the tournament unfolded have surely saved their best performance for last. As accomplished as France are, we have a hunch that it’s Wales story to write on Saturday in a tale of high stakes drama that will be won by the narrowest of margins. We’ve struggled more than most years to pick winners in every round of this year’s Championship and Saturday’s finale in Paris is no exception – but if we have to and without any great sense of conviction we’re giving Wales a last gasp win by the smallest of margins.
So stay safe everyone, stock up on your libations of choice, connect with your rugby mates either at a distance or virtually and get set for one of the best Saturdays of the year!