France v Wales
H 2.05, D 26, A 2.1
Two players with unpredictability and flair will make their Six Nations debuts for France and Wales at Stade de France early tomorrow [Macau time].
Lining up at center for France is 19-year-old Romain Ntamack, who won the world under-20 championship last year and is the son of one of the finest wingers Les Tricolores have produced.
For Wales, Tomos Williams was preferred at scrumhalf while Gareth Davies was in the reserves after recovering from a thigh strain.
“He is not the biggest man in the world, but he’s competitive,” Wales coach Warren Gatland said of Williams. “We feel he is a player with a future. […] He’s got some lovely little touches and a bit of X-factor about him.”
While Williams has a handful of tests to his name, Ntamack has never played for France.
However, he has shown glimpses of his undoubted talent for club side Toulouse and for the French Barbarians. His father, Emile Ntamack, played 46 times for France and was renowned for his strong running and spectacular tries from deep.
France coach Jacques Brunel is hopeful the son can add some finesse and subtlety to a French midfield that has been one dimensional for several years. Burly center Mathieu Bastareaud was dropped.
“We preferred Ntamack because he’s shown what he can do at the highest level with Toulouse, as much in the Top 14 as he has in the European Cup,” Brunel said. “Romain still has to improve [in defense] but we have no doubt he will overcome this obstacle pretty quickly.”
Brunel has paired him alongside Wesley Fofana, who is playing in his final Six Nations, and left out Bastareaud completely. Although Brunel insists “it’s not a punishment” to drop Bastareaud, the decision clearly surprised Gatland.
“We had expected him to be included. He has been a big part of their squad,” Gatland said. “I thought if he wasn’t in the starting XV, he would be on the bench as an impact player for the last 20 minutes.”
After France lost at home to Fiji last November, Bastareaud described his own team as “little boys” after an abject performance. But even though France was poor in that match and in other games last year, Gatland remains wary.
“Their last [home] game in the Six Nations was a win against England, and they should have beaten Ireland in that first game as well,” he said. “They are going to be a tough proposition. It looks to me like they’ve got a big, bruising forward pack and a backline with flair, talent and footwork.
“We will use our wingers or midfield. They will probably use their forward pack. It’s an exciting challenge,” Gatland added. “We are coming under a bit of pressure. They clearly want to be big and physical up front, and play some rugby when they get out wide.”
Brunel also called up another newcomer in lock Paul Willemse, a mobile player whom he hopes will add something extra to France’s static forward play of late.
The 26-year-old Willemse, who was born in the South Africa capital Pretoria and plays for Montpellier, will be in the second row alongside the powerful but inconsistent Sebastien Vahaamahina.
Morgan Parra was at scrumhalf for his 70th cap after missing last year’s tournament with a knee injury and the November home tests with a wrist injury. Camille Lopez will start at flyhalf. They are club teammates at Clermont and both are able penalty kickers.
“We’ve been trying to put them together for the past year, but injuries stopped us doing so,” Brunel said. “They have a good understanding at club level.”
Tough-tackling Maxime Medard was at fullback, the beefy Damian Penaud on the right wing and the speedy Yoann Huget on the left flank.
Brunel has not taken any selection risks with his front three in the pack.
Jefferson Poirot will make his 23rd appearance; Uini Atonio his 32nd, and captain Guilhem Guirado his 64th.
France has not won the Six Nations since 2010, the year it clinched the Grand Slam. The team finished fourth last year, while Wales finished second behind Ireland.
Gatland announced two other changes to the side that beat South Africa in November, with prop Rob Evans and flanker Josh Navidi both selected. Jerome Pugmire, Paris, AP
FRANCE: Maxime Medard, Damian Penaud, Wesley Fofana, Romain Ntamack, Yoann Huget, Camille Lopez, Morgan Parra; Louis Picamoles, Arthur Iturria, Wenceslas Lauret, Paul Willemse, Sebastien Vahaamahina, Uini Atonio, Guilhem Guirado (captain), Jefferson Poirot. Reserves: Julien Marchand, Dany Priso, Demba Bemba, Felix Lambey, Gregory Alldritt, Baptiste Serin, Gael Fickou, Geoffrey Doumayrou.
WALES: Liam Williams; George North, Jonathan Davies, Hadleigh Parkes, Josh Adams; Gareth Anscombe, Tomos Williams; Ross Moriarty, Justin Tipuric, Josh Navidi, Alun Wyn Jones (captain), Adam Beard, Tomas Francis, Ken Owens, Rob Evans. Reserves: Elliot Dee, Wyn Jones, Samson Lee, Cory Hill, Aaron Wainwright, Gareth Davies, Dan Biggar, Owen Watkin.