Grand Slam-hunting France head to Wales for a crunch Six Nations match on Friday on the back of their best Test-winning streak since 2006, bolstered by their captain marvellous, Antoine Dupont.
Dupont has been a keypin in a French side that have won their last six matches, marshalling his side in gritty defence and fleet-footed attack.
Last season, France secured a last-gasp 32-30 win over Wales in Paris to deny the visitors a Grand Slam, although Wayne Pivac’s team did eventually claim the Six Nations title.
Wales have struggled this campaign, however, with just a solitary win over Scotland (20-17) in three games, having lost to Ireland (29-7) and England (23-19).
It has been a different story for France, who have racked up convincing wins over Italy (37-10), Ireland (30-24) and Scotland (36-17), and will be hoping they are not peaking too soon before the 2023 Rugby World Cup they will host.
“We’re taking things match by match,” said France winger Gabin Villiere, the sole change in Fabien Galthie’s starting XV, coming in for Covid-hit Damian Penaud.
“We know Wales will be a big match, but we’re going there to win, we mustn’t lie about that. We’ll need to stay confident and remain focused.”
France, whose midfield defence has been magnificently led by a rejuvenated Gael Fickou, have been given a touch of steel by Shaun Edwards, the former rugby league star-turned-defence coach and long-time assistant to Warren Gatland with Wales.
“Shaun is the first to want to beat Wales and he’s putting us under extra pressure to pull it off,” Villiere said of the fiercely competitive Englishman who also transformed Wales’ defence.
Galthie acknowledged that a game at the Principality Stadium would be a daunting prospect, dubbing Cardiff “a lung, a vital organ of the Six Nations”.
“It’s a show, but it’s sublime, marvellous,” he said of the cauldron-like atmosphere in the city centre stadium.
Pivac was under no illusion about what was in store for his players, saying they were up against the “in-form team in the world”.
The New Zealander singled out scrum-half Dupont as “world class, probably the form player in the world”.
“Even when you are sitting in the opposition coaches’ box, some of the things he does on the field you find yourself just saying well done,” he said.
“He is just great to watch but hopefully we will be able to contain him because he is world class.”
Unlike Galthie, Pivac again rung the changes in his team, bringing in Josh Navidi and Seb Davies in the backrow at the expense of Taine Basham and Ross Moriarty.
Veteran Jonathan Davies was named at centre in place of concussion victim Nick Tompkins and Gareth Thomas preferred at loosehad prop over British and Irish Lion, Wyn Jones.
Pivac had no problem in picking tighthead prop Tomas Francis, who sustained a heavy head knock in the England game and whose treatment raised criticism from a player welfare lobby group.
“We have got a very, very experienced medical team who we think are world class,” Pivac said.
“The follow-up protocols they go through post the match, their return-to-play protocols are quite clearly set by World Rugby. Those have been followed.”
France, whose Six Nations campaign rounds off against England in Paris on March 19, will be hoping to have seen the back of the Covid-19 outbreak that saw Penaud and replacement lock Romain Taofifenua dropped from the match-day squad.
Galthie said he was preparing for the worst. “We are waiting for information from the Six Nations Committee to find out if and when we will be retested.”