CARDIFF, February 25 – Tournament leaders France continue their quest for a Six Nations grand slam away to Wales on Friday with coach Marc Lievremont warning his side to beware the "hell" of Cardiff's Millennium Stadium.
France have looked the Six Nations’ form team in defeating Scotland and defending grand slam champions Ireland, thrashed 33-10 last time out in Paris.
But they have never won three internationals in a row under former France backrow forward Lievremont.
And with the noise of a capacity crowd set to be amplified by a closed Millennium roof, Lievremont knows a match featuring arguably the tournament’s two most exciting sides will be as much as a test of France’s nerve as their undoubted skill.
"We expect a very tough game in the hell of the Millennium, with this enclosed stadium and 80,000 Welshmen," Lievremont said on Wednesday.
Last year France, despite players having featured in Top 14 matches the previous weekend, beat Wales 21-16 in the inaugural Six Nations Friday night clash in Paris
But thanks to a new release agreement, Lievremont’s squad were spared Top 14 duty in the run-up to this match and have had eight straight days together.
"I would say we don’t have the right to fail knowing all we did in the two first games, and knowing the quality of our preparation," Lievremont explained.
However Lievremont added he had plenty of admiration for a Wales team who, despite being 10 points behind with four minutes left against Scotland, somehow won 31-24 in the second round.
"We have a lot of respect for this team, for the quality of its rugby. I think we look like each other."
Lievremont was criticised repeatedly when, after succeeding Bernard Laporte following the 2007 World Cup, he announced he would experiment ahead of the 2011 edition in New Zealand.
He has selected more than 70 players but the method in his ‘madness’ has become apparent over the past 12 months, with France beating New Zealand in the All Black stronghold of Dunedin, and a core team based on traditional French rugby values emerging from Lievremont’s extensive sifting process.
A ‘nasty’ pack, especially strong in the scrum and featuring a back-row including captain Thierry Dusautoir, are supported by a talented set of backs.
Morgan Parra, the 21-year-old scrum-half, has been playing with impressive maturity while fly-half Francois Trinh-Duc had perhaps the best game of his France career against Ireland.
Meanwhile the centre duo of the increasingly influential Mathieu Bastareaud and Yannick Jauzion has the classic qualities of pace, power and guile.
Injuries have forced Lievremont to change his line-up, although the ‘Juliens’ coming in are all fine players.
Wing Vincent Clerc and flanker Fulgence Ouedraogo have been replaced by Julien Malzieu and Julien Bonnaire respectively while Pascal Pape’s ankle injury has seen the lock’s place go to Julien Pierre.
Wales have been slow out of the blocks in both defeat by England and victory over Scotland.
They know it will be a case of ‘third time unlucky’ if they make a similarly sluggish start on Friday but, if Wales carry on from where they left off against Scotland, a French grand slam could yet fall at the third hurdle. "France have shown how dangerous they can be if you give them momentum," said Wales flanker Martyn Williams.
"That’s the key – how we defend on Friday night, and hopefully a lot better than we did against Scotland."
Wales coach Warren Gatland has made four changes.
Cardiff scrum-half Richie Rees is set for a first Test start in place of Gareth Cooper after impressing off the bench where British and Irish Lions No 9 Mike Phillips now takes a spot despite playing only 40 minutes of rugby in the last four months.
Hooker Huw Bennett replaces the injured Gareth Williams and there is an all-Cardiff second row partnership of Bradley Davies and Deiniol Jones.
Jonathan Thomas switches from lock to flanker to fill the back-row vacancy created by Andy Powell’s axing from the squad after he was charged with drink-driving last week.