Strong start needed from Wales in Paris

Beleaguered Wales face a huge task in holding back a France side stung by defeat in Italy in the early Six Nations match this weekend

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Reigning Six Nations champions Wales make the daunting trip to the Stade de France knowing defeat will almost certainly end their hopes of retaining their title.

The omens are not good for Rob Howley's men, however, following an eight-game losing run that has not seen them beat a Test-playing nation since they overcame Les Bleus to claim the Grand Slam 12 months ago.

Throw in a French side smarting from their opening-weekend 23-18 defeat to Italy and an early all-or-nothing encounter looms in northern Paris on Saturday afternoon.

France's strengths / Wales' weaknesses

France's most potent weapon is likely to be their desire to right the wrongs of last weekend. Les Bleus were made to pay for their complacency, poor handling and the inability of their half-backs to take control of the contest.

All but Florian Fritz and injured skipper Pascal Pape will get the chance to prove the Azzurri debacle was a blip after Philippe Saint-Andre stuck by his men at the selection table.

His only tactical change was to bring in Mathieu Bastareaud - set to start for the first time in three years - in a move that will see a Toulon combination at 10-12-13 alongside Frederic Michalak and Maxime Mermoz. Saint-Andre hopes that will provide a greater understanding in his backline, after a disjointed display last weekend, and who should get plenty of ball from a monster pack.

Wales will have to counter that threat without skipper Sam Warburton, who misses out with a shoulder problem although his recent dip in form could conceivably have seen him dropped. What is certain is that Warburton joins an injury list that has crippled the Welsh and played a major part in their losing run.

That said they have hardly helped themselves with a lack of urgency early in games, highlighted by a horror show in the first half of the 30-22 Ireland defeat last weekend, and in the embarrassing November defeat to Samoa. Do that again and they will have no chance of claiming a first win at the Stade de France since 2005.

Wales' strengths / France's weaknesses

France's huge forwards can dominate teams - Australia melted under their pressure in November - but equally it can prove their Achilles heel if their opposition can get quick ball. Saint-Andre will pin his hopes on steamrolling an ailing Welsh pack but the Azzurri's half-backs showed that intelligent game management can expose them.

Mike Phillips, who knows the opposition well now that he plays his rugby at Bayonne, has the ability to do just that and much will depend on whether he can rediscover his match-winning credentials.

On the other side of the scrum Michalak and the inexperienced Maxime Machenaud endured an afternoon to forget against Italy and will feel the spotlight of pressure following that skittish combination.

If Phillips can win that tactical battle Wales could apply the same sort of pressure France struggled to cope with against the Azzurri.

Impoderables

The home crowd. Just how the French fans will welcome their side following the shock in Rome could play a major part in the match. Saint-Andre has stood by his team by naming an almost unchanged line-up but in the words of Machenaud they can ill afford to let slip their "second chance". If they make the same type of errors they did against Italy the Les Bleus faithful could quickly get on their side's back and galvanise the visitors.

Prediction

The course of the match is likely to be decided inside the opening half. If Wales continue their current trend for slow starts then they can expect to be overrun by a French side that revel in grinding teams when they are down. If the Welsh can cling tight then the misgivings from last weekend could begin to surface again in the French ranks. It will, however, take all of Wales' might and character to inflict such pain at a venue where they have rarely enjoyed such momentum.

France 30-13 Wales

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