Wales v France, Six Nations, February 26
Friday night lights await Cardiff showdown
Graham Jenkins
February 26, 2010
France head coach Marc Lievremont faces the media, France press conference, London, England, March 16, 2009
CanMarc Lievremont's side make it three wins in a row for the first time since he took charge? © Getty Images

The Six Nations resumes on Friday night with Grand Slam-chasing France tackling Wales at the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff.

Following impressive victories over first Scotland and then defending champions Ireland, France will enter the game as favourites with the hosts under pressure to show that their late rally against the Scots a fortnight ago was the start of a more substantial revival.

In what will be only the second ever Championship fixture to be staged under the Friday night lights, following last year's corresponding fixture in Paris, Les Bleus will be confident of taking a step nearer their first Grand Slam since 2004 but nagging doubts remain about their consistency and if they are to remain on course for a clean sweep they will have to notch a third successive victory - a feat that they have not achieved since Lievremont took charge in 2007. The Welsh masses were left in a state of delirium following a dramatic and breath-taking ending to their most recent clash against Scotland but that final flourish failed to paper over the cracks of an otherwise poor display that was punctuated with uncharacteristic defensive lapses.

France have set the standard so far in this year's Championship with two commanding displays that have drawn widespread praise but injuries threaten to derail their campaign. Coach Marc Lievremont was originally forced into two changes from the side that over-powered Ireland with injuries stripping him of flanker Fulgence Ouedraogo and winger Vincent Clerc but there was more bad news later in the week with wing Benjamin Fall and lock Pascal Pape sidelined. But in the likes of Clermont duo Julien Bonnaire and Julien Malzieu he has enviable strength in depth.

Bonnaire joins skipper Thierry Dusautoir and Imanol Harinordoquy in an in-form back-row that has been the heartbeat of the side in recent weeks but it is the increasingly-assured performances of fly-half Francois Trinh-Duc and scrum-half Morgan Parra that have proved the key to their success. Lievremont has been rewarded handsomely for having faith in his halfbacks and the players themselves have thrived in that knowledge - thanks largely to a dominant pack.

Wales have had their own injury problems with hookers Matthew Rees and Gareth Williams, lock Alun-Wyn Jones and prop Gethin Jenkins all struck down. In addition, Andy Powell's quest for some breakfast in the wake of the Scotland game has seen him cast out of the squad. But while Powell may still have an international lifeline, scrum-half Gareth Cooper's days look numbered after he was jettisoned from the squad after a lacklustre display against the Scots. His exit coincided with the return of British & Irish Lions international Mike Phillips who will start from the bench with Richie Rees handed the No.9 jersey. And both will have something to prove with the return of Dwayne Peel providing some much needed competition for the starting scrum-half berth.

Elsewhere, Huw Bennett gets the nod at hooker, regional team-mates Deiniol Jones and Bradley Davies form a new-look second row with Jonathan Thomas switching to blindside to fill the void left by Powell.

The great escape against the Scots granted Gatland a brief reprieve, with Powell's headline-grabbing antics offering a little more breathing space, and the two-week break will have been welcomed as he set about addressing his side's shortcomings. Wales were largely outplayed by the Scots with his side's defensive frailty sure to have been his primary concern. No doubt assistant coach Shaun Edwards will have made them pay for their mistakes on the training field and they will not need reminding that a repeat performance will see them devoured by what has been a clinical French side.

Scotland's indiscipline opened the door to the Welsh with two yellow cards proving pivotal but the hosts are unlikely to be granted such a luxury by a French side that has exuded confidence in their first two encounters. The results tell only part of the story with their performances giving their European rivals plenty of food for thought as well as adding significant impetus to their usual swagger. Another controlled and ruthless display from Lievremont's charges may well blow the cracks in the Welsh side wide open but they will not underestimate their hosts who triumphed in their last meeting on the ground in 2008 - when the Welsh went on to claim a famous Grand Slam.

One joker in the pack maybe the appointment of South African Jonathan Kaplan as referee. The Super 14 regular, and his compatriot Mark Lawrence who will take charge of England v Ireland on Saturday, have reportedly been instructed to referee the same way they do in the southern hemisphere. Recent directives handed down by SANZAR appear to have had a dramatic effect on the breakdown - not to mention the scoreline - and only time will tell if that will throw a spanner in the works of this Six Nations showpiece.

The dark cloud of inconsistency continues to hover over France with the doomsayers insisting it is only a matter of time before it strikes at the heart of their title challenge. On current form it will take a monumental effort from Wales, not to mention a stratospheric turnaround in form, to knock them off their stride. But like France, they are one of the few sides capable of taking your breath away and if they can re-create the magical seven minutes they conjured against the Scots and stretch it over 80 minutes we should be in for a cracking game.

Wales: L Byrne (Ospreys); L Halfpenny (Cardiff Blues), J Hook (Ospreys), J Roberts (Cardiff Blues), S Williams (Ospreys); S Jones (Scarlets), R Rees (Cardiff Blues); P James (Ospreys), H Bennett (Ospreys), A Jones (Ospreys), B Davies (Cardiff Blues), D Jones (Cardiff Blues), J Thomas (Ospreys), M Williams (Cardiff Blues), R Jones (Ospreys, capt)

Replacements: K Owens (Scarlets), R Gill (Saracens), L Charteris (Newport Gwent Dragons), S Warburton (Cardiff Blues), M Phillips (Ospreys), A Bishop (Ospreys), T Shanklin (Cardiff Blues)

France: C Poitrenaud (Toulouse); J Malzieu (Clermont Auvergne), M Bastareaud (Stade Francais), Y Jauzion (Toulouse), A Palisson (Brive); F Trinh-Duc (Montpellier), M Parra (Clermont Auvergne); T Domingo (Clermont Auvergne), W Servat (Toulouse), N Mas (Perpignan), L Nallet (Racing-Metro), J Pierre (Bourgoin), T Dusautoir (Toulouse, capt), J Bonnaire (Clermont Auvergne), I Harinordoquy (Biarritz)

Replacements: D Szarzewski (Stade Francais), J-B Poux (Toulouse), S Chabal (Racing Metro), A Lapandry (Clermont Auvergne), F Michalak (Toulouse), D Marty (Perpignan), M Andreu (Castres)

Referee: Jonathan Kaplan (SA)

Assistant referees: Alan Lewis (Ire), Simon McDowell (Ire)
Television Match Official: Jim Yuille (Sco)

Graham Jenkins is the Senior Editor of ESPNscrum.

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