Ahead of this weekend’s fixture in the Stade de France, I thought I would take a look at a specific area where the game could be won or lost. France and Wales have arguably the two most dynamic and powerful back threes of the teams in this year’s competition. Come game time on Saturday, the trio that performs best could be crucial to the outcome of what is sure to be a tight affair.
Yoann Huget- 35 Tests, 6 Tries: Aside from an unsavoury diving incident earlier in the season for Toulouse, Huget is a class act. While his ratio of tries to tests is uninspiring, he is the most experienced of the French back three and is a very consistent performer. An outstanding personal performance at Murrayfield in last year’s competition dragged an uninspiring France to victory and a similar performance this weekend will really test the Welsh defence.
Brice Dulin- 18 Tests, 3 Tries: Returning to the side to replace the largely ineffective Scott Spedding, Dulin significantly strengthens the back line. A stand out member in a disappointing last campaign, the Racing Metro full-back brings much needed guile to the 15 shirt as well as a strong left boot. In a week of changes for the backline, his return may be the solidifying factor that leads France to a home victory.
Sofiane Guitoune- 2 Tests, 1 Try: The Bordeaux-Begles flyer comes into the side for his Six Nations debut, replacing the injured Teddy Thomas. The 25 year old is a relative new-comer to the international scene, but has an ideal chance to establish himself this weekend. Guitoune is powerful, with raw pace and an excellent step and if given too much time and space on the ball is a real danger. The game on Saturday is the biggest of his career and if he handles the occasion well, his flair will pose serious questions for the Welsh.
George North- 46 Tests, 19 Tries: The Saints winger returns to the starting line-up after recovering from his well-documented concussion. Approaching 50 caps for his country at the age of just 22, stopping North will be high priority for French coach Phillipe Saint-Andre. His 4 try salvo in October’s European Champions Cup match against the Ospreys showed just how unstoppable he can be on his day. Weighing in at comfortably over 100kgs and with bags of pace, a fully firing North is enough to win any game.
Leigh Halfpenny- 55 Tests, 12 Tries (446 Points): With that many points for his country, it is clear just how important Halfpenny is for Wales. Despite probably being the least likely on this list to make regular line-breaks, Halfpenny is solid and dependable. From the kicking tee he is one of the best around and in a game likely to be decided by fine margins, any French misdemeanours will more than likely result in 3 points. A typically solid and accurate display from the Toulon fullback could be the basis of an away victory, while a rare off day with the boot will be just what the Les Blues will be hoping for.
Liam Williams- 20 Tests, 1 Try: A bit part figure for most of his international career so far, Williams is given a boost this weekend by retaining his place at the expense of Alex Cuthbert. A wholehearted and fully committed player, the Scarlets man has had some disciplinary problems and is prone to the odd rash decision. However, when he gets it right he can be dangerous-as he proved with a try and man of the match performance against Scotland last year. Less physically imposing than Cuthbert, Williams adds some unpredictability to the back line. Coach Warren Gatland has shown his faith by selecting him for what will be a big test and how Williams channels his undoubted enthusiasm could have an impact on the final outcome of proceedings.
With wholesale changes to the French back division (most notably with the omission of Bastareaud), the new look line-up looks more conducive to wide, running rugby. Wales retain their strong midfield runners and while there are options in the wide channels, Roberts and Davies are set to remain their first port of call. In what promises to be a war of attrition in Paris-if Les Bleus’ back three rise to the challenge, their traditional French flair could be the decisive factor.