x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Huge French test awaits Wales

Strong defence and watertight discipline will be high on Wales' agenda when they face the considerable task of trying to stop the Six Nations title favourites France tonight.

The fact that Sebastien Chabal, left, and Frederic Michalak can only make the bench shows how strong the France side are.
The fact that Sebastien Chabal, left, and Frederic Michalak can only make the bench shows how strong the France side are.

Strong defence and watertight discipline will be high on Wales' agenda when they face the considerable task of trying to stop the Six Nations title favourites France tonight. Current form suggests the 2008 Grand Slam champions might struggle. While Wales have shipped 54 points and five tries in two Six Nations games, winning one and losing one, France are chasing a third successive victory which would keep them firmly on course for their first tournament clean sweep since 2004.

Les Bleus, inspired by their midfield powerhouse Mathieu Bastareaud, were too strong for Scotland before ending Irish hopes of a second successive Grand Slam by beating them 33-10 in Paris two weeks ago. France have lost just one of five previous Six Nations games in Cardiff, scoring 135 points along the way, so Wales know they have their work cut out. "I think France have been impressive," acknowledged Warren Gatland, the Wales coach. "They were clinical against Ireland, although I felt Ireland shot themselves in the foot a little bit.

"The yellow card [for prop Cian Healy] was costly for them, they tried to force the game a little bit too much and France were accurate. "Ireland missed a couple of chances, so you look at that and it wasn't as though I have come away shaking in my boots, thinking that France are unbeatable. "The key for us is starting well. France have got some big strong ball-carriers, and we have got to get in their faces and stop them.

"France like to have a bit of time on the ball, and they will take risks. They do make mistakes, and discipline is a key for us." Defensive blunders, meanwhile, contributed towards Wales falling an alarming distance behind during their three most recent Tests against Australia, England and Scotland. It is an area they must tighten up considerably, especially behind the scrum, which was highlighted by John Barclay's gift of a try two weeks ago following a dreadful combined missed tackle from James Hook and Gareth Cooper.

Gatland has no doubt Wales will sharpen their act in that critical phase of the game - and he also promises another positive approach from a team that loves to entertain. "I believe you need to be positive in the way you play. As a coach, I like us to be smart and positive," he said. "I would like to think that Wales have been one of the most entertaining teams in the first two rounds of the Six Nations.

"We have tried to play positively, and hopefully referees will reward us for that. We know we need to improve on our performance against Scotland. "We know we will create chances, but we need to work hard in defence and improve in that area, as well as concentrate on maintaining discipline. "Then we need to be clinical, take our points and build in attack. If we can do those things, we know we are in with a chance."

Meanwhile, Mark Cueto has become the latest England player to be struck down with a stomach bug. The Sale winger has not been ruled out of tomorrow's game against Ireland but he did not train with the squad yesterday. Northampton's Chris Ashton joined the squad at their Pennyhill Park base today as a precaution. Nick Mallett, the Italy coach, has made no changes to the starting XV that lost to England for the game against Scotland in Rome tomorrow.

The Italians go into the game looking to get their campaign up and running after defeats to Ireland and England in their two opening games of the tournament. The Azzurri pushed England close before falling to a 17-12 defeat a fortnight ago. Italy welcome back Viadana's Carlo Antonio Del Fava from injury. He missed the clash against England with a right knee problem and will sit on the bench this weekend in place of Valerio Bernabo, who has been dropped from the squad. * PA Sport

Jamie Roberts v Mathieu Bastareaud: The heavyweight match-up in the centre between these two powerhouses promises to be a fascinating subplot. Deiniol Jones v Lionel Nallet: Jones was a surprise call-up and the Cardiff Blue lock faces a tough battle in the engine room against the abrasive Nallet. Richie Rees v Morgan Parra: Do not be surprised if Warren Gatland summons Mike Phillips from the bench as Rees will have his hands full with Parra.