France will target a third successive Six Nations victory under new coach Guy Noves when they take on fancied tournament winners Wales at Cardiff’s Principality Stadium on Friday.
Noves, who took over from Philippe Saint-Andre after a disastrous World Cup that saw France humiliated by eventual winners New Zealand in the quarter-finals, has guided Les Bleus to narrow wins over Italy (23-21) and Ireland (10-9).
Warren Gatland’s Wales team were held to a 16-all draw by the Irish before seeing off Scotland 27-23.
With England also unbeaten under new coach Eddie Jones and set to entertain Ireland on Saturday, this third of five rounds of matches could be crucial to deciding the victor of the Six Nations championship.
Gatland was handed a blow when the outstanding Luke Charteris was ruled out with a knee injury, the Racing 92 lock’s place taken by Bradley Davies.
The New Zealander made two other changes to the side that beat Scotland, with wing Alex Cuthbert and flanker Dan Lydiate drafted into the run-on team.
Behind the scrum, centre Jonathan Davies has been given the all-clear after missing French club side Clermont’s Top 14 match against Castres last weekend because of a groin problem.
“France come to Cardiff unbeaten in the campaign so far, and impressing under Guy (Noves),” said Gatland.
“We are looking to continue our unbeaten run and will be looking for another step up after the victory over Scotland.”
France lost the services of wingers Teddy Thomas and the uncapped Marvin O’Connor for Friday’s clash, an evening kick-off in the Welsh capital’s closed-roof stadium.
Both sustained injuries back on Top 14 duty between internationals, the demands of the unrelenting French league also seeing skipper and hooker Guilhem Guirado pressed into action for Toulon.
The French federation was forced into a quick, rather embarrassing u-turn after calling up Samoa-born David Smith as a wing replacement, only to discover that the Castres back had played for the New Zealand sevens team back in 2008, thus making him ineligible for France.
Smith’s free running would have suited an increasingly fluid France team that, while not racking up big scores in their opening two games, has at least been willing to throw the ball around as the players slowly gel together.
Full-back Maxime Medard, back in favour under former Toulouse coach Noves, praised the new coaching set-up for allowing more spontaneity.
“Of course after two wins we’re more relaxed in training,” said Medard.
“That apart, what I believe is different to previous years is that the players are really taking responsibility for the style of play: we’re not waiting to be told what to do, we try to speak out about things we agree or disagree with.”
For France, Friday’s match will bring back painful memories as it was the setting for their record 62-13 thrashing at the hands of the All Blacks last October.
And France’s last clash with Wales there two years ago ended in a 27-6 defeat.
Stade Francais winger Djibril Camara will face a baptism of fire as he was named for his debut match, one of five changes Noves made from the side that edged out Ireland.
Maxime Machenaud replaces Sebastien Bezy at scrum-half, while lock Paul Jedrasiak relegates Yoann Maestri to the bench, and hard-nosed flanker Antoine Burban starts, his club form for Stade Francais rewarded, having last won a cap on the June 2014 tour of Australia.
Rabah Slimani, whose appearance off the bench was a turning factor in the win over Ireland, starts in the front row alongside fellow prop Jefferson Poirot and hooking skipper Guilhem Guirado.
The replacements bench also includes fly-half Francois Trinh-Duc, the 50-time capped Montpellierback who was not selected for the World Cup and has just come back from a leg injury.