by Joe Mansfield
THE thing about international rugby is that every individual battle across the field is important, as the matches are often determined by the finest of margins.
The France v Wales game is essentially a friendly, but the strength in both sides starting XV’s shows neither nation is taking the encounter lightly.
France proved too much for Wales back in February when Les Blues defeated Wayne Pivac’s men 27-23 in Cardiff.
A win this weekend would tee up either side to finish their Six Nations campaign strongly next Saturday.
Although the game is a ‘friendly’, Pivac and Fabien Galthie will be hoping to win every individual duel on Saturday evening. However, there are five battles that will likely influence the result the most.
Romain Ntamack v Dan Biggar
Potentially the best outside half of the tournament so far, Ntamack lit up the first stint of the championship with his flair and skill. If Wales are to stand any chance of redemption, they need to shut down the mercurial out-half early.
Dan Biggar is a man with bundles of international experience, having already picked up 83 caps for his country. Defensive solidity and ever-present composure are the main features of Biggar’s game, but he will need to draw upon all of his experience in order to contain his opposite man.
An area Biggar could best the Frenchman in is from the kicking tee. The 21-year-old Toulouse stand-off has a 71% conversion rate thus far in 2020 for France. Whereas, the Welsh veteran averages 94% in 2020 for Wales, having missed just one of his 16 efforts.
Antoine Dupont v Rhys Webb
As the link between the forwards and the backs, scrum half is one of the most influential men on the field. France are fortunate they have one of the best players in world rugby operating in that position.
Dupont, who partners the aforementioned Ntamack at Toulouse, is helping to build their reputation as an exceptional half-back pairing. He provides quick ball to his compatriot and adds great support lines to his game to make him the complete number 9.
On the other hand, Webb is a man looking to stake a claim to make the 9 jersey his own. Gareth Davies has been the preferred option in recent times as Webb needs to prove himself to Pivac since his international exile.
Teddy Thomas v Josh Adams
This might well be the most important duel on the field. The momentum of the game should be determined elsewhere, but it is out wide that the tries might take place.
A single missed tackle from either man could mean a try to the opposition.
We know both men are talented finishers with pace and flair to boot. They have five tries in this year’s championship between them.
But it could be their defensive prowess that is most important this week as they aim to nullify their opponents attacking exploits.
Cyril Baille v Samson Lee
Just four points separated the teams in February and if the game is to be close once more then the set piece will be pivotal.
One of the most noteworthy selections Pivac made for this game was the recall of Lee who has not featured since 2019. Known for his scrummaging, the Scarlets tighthead will need to be firing on all cylinders against Baille.
If the scrum holds strong the chance of a Welsh victory is far more likely.
Virimi Vakatawa v George North
These two are not set to directly face off from the offset but will likely meet late on in the encounter.
Jonathan Davies will line up against Vakatawa to begin with, but it is thought his current fitness levels are only enough to last around 60 minutes. Pivac has stated that he intends to replace Davies with North at outside centre and bring young Louis Rees Zammit on to the left flank.
The last 20 minutes of a test is often when the result is decided. North is not a natural centre having played the vast majority of his career on the wing and will have a tough time containing the explosive Frenchman.
Outside centre is often referred to by rugby experts as the hardest defensive position on the field, Pivac will hope this decision doesn’t cost his side victory.