Warren Gatland challenges Wales to take ‘another step up’ for French challenge

Warren Gatland has targeted “another step up” from his players on Friday night when they chase a victory over France that would send them top of the RBS 6 Nations Championship.

Warren Gatland challenges Wales to take ‘another step up’ for French challenge

Wales have not lost to France since suffering an agonising 2011 World Cup semi-final defeat in Auckland, reeling off four successive Six Nations wins.

And after an opening weekend draw against Ireland, which was followed by victory over Scotland in Cardiff, Wales can effectively set up a title showdown with Eddie Jones’ England at Twickenham on March 12 by toppling France, given that their final fixture is a Principality Stadium appointment with struggling Italy seven days later.

“It’s set to be another huge Six Nations weekend,” Wales head coach Gatland said.

“France come to Cardiff unbeaten in the campaign so far, and impressing under Guy (Noves). We are looking to continue our unbeaten run and will be looking for another step up after the victory over Scotland.”

Lock Luke Charteris, though, will miss France’s Cardiff visit because of a knee injury and is replaced in the starting XV by Wasps forward Bradley Davies.

Charteris, who has won 64 caps, was not involved for Racing 92 against Grenoble last Saturday, and his loss will be a blow to Wales, given the considerable impression he made in Ireland and at home to Scotland.

Two other changes from the side that defeated Scotland 10 days ago see call-ups for Cardiff Blues wing Alex Cuthbert and Ospreys flanker Dan Lydiate, with Wales skipper Sam Warburton switching to more familiar openside flanker duty after two successive starts at blindside. Justin Tipuric drops out of the back-row.

But centre Jonathan Davies will feature alongside regular midfield partner Jamie Roberts after he missed his club Clermont Auvergne’s league game against Castres three days ago because of a groin problem.

Cuthbert, meanwhile, is handed a first start of the Six Nations campaign, replacing his Blues colleague Tom James, who does not make the matchday 23.

And Lydiate starts following two outings off the bench, with Gatland reverting to a blindside specialist in his back-row after two runs together for regular openside exponents Warburton and Tipuric.

Elsewhere, fly-half Rhys Priestland, who suffered a dead leg during Bath’s Aviva Premiership defeat against Wasps last weekend, is fit to take his place among the replacements, where Scarlets lock Jake Ball also lines up following his return from injury.

“We have made a couple of changes, one injury-enforced with Luke missing out with a knee injury, but Bradley deserves a starting spot as well, so it’s a good opportunity for him,” Gatland added.

“We have made two other personnel changes, with Alex and Dan coming into the starting team. They have trained well and will suit the game France will potentially bring as well.

“We initially thought we would have to wait until later in the week to have a final update on injuries, but we know where we are earlier than expected and have told the squad, hence announcing (the team) today as well.”

Assessing the challenge against France, whose opening Six Nations encounters produced victories over Italy and Ireland by a combined total of just three points, Warburton said: “I have played France for the last five or six years in a row, and I have never found them easy.

“Even though we have quite a good record against them in the Six Nations, it has always been a very tough set-piece battle, very physical, and they have individuals with a massive amount of skill and ability.

“There is not a French team I have ever written off. I always rate them very highly.

“It will be quite strange not playing against (Thierry) Dusautoir this year because he has been there for the last five or six years, but they have top players with experience at big clubs.”

Meanwhile Italy are sweating over the fitness of fly-half Carlo Canna ahead of their RBS 6 Nations clash with Scotland on Saturday.

The 23-year-old went off during Italy’s loss to England and has been struggling with a leg injury, while centre Giulio Bisegni is bidding to recover from a calf problem suffered while playing for Zebre in the defeat to Connacht.

Italy forwards coach Giampiero De Carli believes the game against Scotland is the most important of the year for the Azzurri, as they look to avoid the dreaded wooden spoon.

“Saturday’s game will be the hardest of the year, the pressure is going to be the same for us and for Scotland,” he said.

“We are both after a first win, so the expectations are really high for both teams.

“Scotland are well-organised and well-coached. They are strong physically and tactically, and they are consistent both in attack and defence.

“After our first two games against France and England, we have faith in the work we are doing.

"The worries we had at the start of the Championship have forced us to take responsibility to give ourselves the best possibility of winning on Saturday.”

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