Wales v France, Friday, Principality Stadium, 8.0pm, (live on RTE 2, BBC 1)
If nothing else, this one will make for some stunning photographs. The deep blue of France against the bright scarlet of Wales, the Friday night lights of Cardiff offering a richness to the images.
That is about as much optimism as can be confidently projected from a Welsh point of view as a French side set on a grand slam meet a squad seemingly held together by chewing gum and gumption.
“They’re the real deal,” said the Wales captain and outhalf, Dan Biggar, on the eve of the match. “We realise that this French team is different to the previous French teams that we’ve played over the years. The size of the pack, the in-form players that they’ve got, the coaching setup and who they’ve brought in.”
Much of the attention has rightly focused on Antoine Dupont, World Rugby's reigning player of the year and the fulcrum at number nine between a blistering backline and a set of forwards that might be the most dominant in the game at present. "It's pretty obvious he's the best player in the world," Biggar said of Dupont. "He has a huge influence on any game he plays. His partnership with [Romain] Ntamack has flourished over the past 18 months. They're in seriously good form."
This will be the halfback pairing's 12th Six Nations game together. According to the statistician Russ Petty they are only three away from Morgan Parra and François Trinh-Duc. But at 25 and 22 respectively, Dupont and Ntamack are on the brink of what could be a dynastic union.
That they are mostly playing on front-foot ball has several explanations. For a side famed for their expansive running and offload game, France kick a lot. They have made almost 800 more metres from the boot than any other team in the competition and therefore rarely play in their own half. They pin the opposition backthree in their own territory and invite counterattacks from distance. They then commit to the breakdown like zealots, jackalling with ferocious intent until they either win a penalty or turn the ball over. Then there’s their monstrous pack.
“Look at the way they dismantled Scotland,” Biggar said of France’s 36-17 win in Edinburgh. “A lot of it was due to big carries, getting on top of the ball or being on top defensively and scoring points from that. It’s about making sure we’re physically ready and then we’ve got to make sure we take our opportunities because they’ll probably be few and far between. France aren’t going to give us anything on a plate.”
France have not stumbled upon their extra heft overnight, it has been building. At the 2018 Under-20 World Championship final, France bulldozed England to win 33-25. An indomitable scrum and a clinical lineout proved the difference in Béziers. Ntamack played that day, but more crucially so did Julien Marchand and Cameron Woki who will both start in France's tight five tonight with Jean-Baptiste Gros offering support from the bench.
Biggar, though, did offer one other source of hope. He cited the 2013 game in Paris. Not much was expected of Wales having just lost eight games in a row. But a scrappy 16-6 win kickstarted their campaign, which would end in triumph five weeks later.
“We’re quietly confident,” said Biggar, who has been productive against France, scoring three tries from 11 games, winning seven of them. “We’re happy for Dupont and Ntamack and Shaun [Edwards, France’s defence coach who had previously fulfilled the role with Wales] to take all the headlines. We’re just trying to make sure we focus on ourselves.”
Wales: L Williams; A Cuthbert, O Watkin, J Davies, J Adams; D Biggar (c), T Williams; G Thomas, R Elias, T Francis, W Rowlands, A Beard, S Davies, J Navidi, T Faletau.
Replacements: D Lake, W Jones, D Lewis, R Moriarty, J Morgan, K Hardy, G Anscombe, L Rees-Zammit. France: M Jaminet; Y Moefana, G Fickou, J Danty, G Villiere; R Ntamack, A Dupont (c); C Baille, J Marchand, U Atonio, C Woki, P Willemse, F Cros, A Jelonch, G Aldritt.
Replacements: P Mauvaka, J-B Gros, M Haouas, T Flament, D Cretin, M Lucu, T Ramos, M Lebel.