Wales vs. France: 5 Key Battles That Will Shape Their Six Nations Clash

Tom Sunderland@@TomSunderland_Featured ColumnistFebruary 19, 2014

Wales vs. France: 5 Key Battles That Will Shape Their Six Nations Clash

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    Wales' hopes of retaining the Six Nations title for a third year in succession rest on whether or not Warren Gatland's side can claim anything from their home clash against France on Friday.

    The 26-3 loss in Dublin means that a second loss for the Welsh will likely derail their championship bid, while Philippe Saint-Andre's in-form outfit have maintained a 100 percent winning record from their first two outings.

    For either side to come out on top, there lies a specific set of one-on-one encounters that will shape the tie. Figures both big and small and both inexperienced minnows and seasoned stalwarts will all look to have their say.

1. George North vs. Mathieu Bastareaud

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    Coming into this year's tournament, France and Wales boasted two of the most assured centre partnerships in the competition based on form.

    However, injury to Scott Williams and presumable outside centre replacement Ashley Beck has meant that George North must once again step into the unfamiliar No. 13 jersey this weekend.

    The malleable nature of the 21-year-old means that he's fully capable of shifting into a more central slot, just as he did for a period on last summer's British and Irish Lions tour, but Mathieu Bastareaud won't be suffering fools gladly when he makes the trip to Cardiff.

    Physically, this promises to be an epic battle between two bruising figures of the fixture, but North's lack of familiarity as a playmaker may inhibit Welsh production and, in turn, the success seen by Liam Williams, the man coming onto the wing in his place.

2. Alun-Wyn Jones vs. Pascal Pape

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    Alun-Wyn Jones and Pascal Pape have each held the official title of captain for their respective teams in recent weeks, but even with Sam Warburton taking over for the former, Jones still promises to inject his usual dose of leadership against Les Bleus.

    Given the healthy heap of back-line talent that Wales and France each boast out wide, it's impossible to suggest that the pack game will completely decide this year's meeting, but one can bet that Jones and Pape's impending line-out battle will.

    Both of massive stature both physically and in a moral respect, the mental influence of these two will be an intriguing face-off to keep one's eye on, not to mention any on-the-ball contributions the pair decide to add in the loose.

3. Richard Hibbard vs. Dimitri Szarzewski

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    Richard Hibbard has been in bulldozing form for Wales in recent months, the propensity with which the Ospreys hooker carries the ball and simply refuses to do anything other than gain yardage being an impressive improvement in his game.

    However, Dimitri Szarzewski has shown that he can be a carrying machine in his own regard, and after coming on as a substitute for Benjamin Kayser in Week 1, the Racing Metro star ran for more than 40 metres with ball in hand.

    It goes without saying that the pair's throwing at the line-out and general set-piece proficiency will be a telling factor in the game, but this is a rare fracas in that Millennium Stadium onlookers will have two hookers on their hands who resemble something closer to back-rowers at times.

4. Rhys Webb vs. Jean-Marc Doussain

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    With Mike Phillips being dropped to the bench by Gatland, Wales' pace of play is likely to shift this weekend with the Ospreys' Rhys Webb taking the No. 9 jersey in his place.

    Against Italy, France showed signs that the half-back pairing of Jean-Marc Doussain and Jules Plisson—Saint-Andre's 10th such combination in two years—was still going through its growing pains.

    However, Doussain has had his impressive moments and shown the potential to be a safe option for France at the back of the scrum.

    Webb is likely to be apprehensive in what will only be his fifth Test cap for his nation, and a scrappy head-to-head awaits against a similarly inexperienced scrum-half of the same style.

5. Leigh Halfpenny vs. Brice Dulin

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    When he joins the Welsh legions amassing in the Top 14 this summer, Leigh Halfpenny can expect to encounter Castres' Brice Dulin on a far more regular basis.

    However, this will be the first international meeting between the two, with the former's reputation already of an established level while it's been a small shock to see just how impressive the latter has performed for Les Bleus of late.

    Dulin has carried for an average of 87 metres per game thus far in the competition, while Toulon-bound Halfpenny was neutralized at the Aviva Stadium in Week 2 and is in some need of a big bounceback.

    Aside from the fine kicking assurances that the Welsh full-back brings to the tee, Halfpenny will be tested in asserting a difference at the running game, especially with his back-line synchronisation taking on some change thanks to North's shift into the centre.