France, Wales target top-half finish in Six Nations finale

France rugby players attend a training session at the National Rugby Center in Marcoussis, south of Paris, Tuesday, March 14, 2017. France will play against Wales during their Six Nations tournament match at Stade de France on Saturday, March 18. (AP Photo/Francois Mori)

PARIS (AP) A top-half finish in the Six Nations has been an elusive prize for France in recent years.

There is no doubt the French have improved a lot under coach Guy Noves, but results have not been good enough to fulfill the high expectations that followed the former Toulouse coach’s appointment two years ago.

Under Noves, France has switched to its more traditional brand of attacking rugby, but victories have been scarce. The Tricolors finished second-to-last in 2016, and have lost to England and Ireland this year.

For the first time in six years, though, the French can finish as high as second if they win at the Stade de France on Saturday. Not an easy task given who they will be dealing with: Wales, a team that has beaten the French five times in a row.

The French last won this contest in the 2011 Rugby World Cup semifinals.

”If we play and make as many mistakes, we won’t survive against Wales,” Noves said, reflecting on the comfortable but error-ridden 40-18 win in Italy last week. ”When you see the intensity, the rigor, the pragmatism, the lucidity and the accuracy in all their movements, their defensive physicality … everybody can see this team’s qualities.”

Other results also have to go France’s way. Wales also could finish runner-up but will need a third straight victory at the Stade de France, at least.

When they met last year in Cardiff, France failed to cope with Wales’ kicking game, and struggled under the high ball and in the lineouts. Noves’ players lost 19-10 after George North’s comical try.

”It was a turning point,” Noves said on Thursday, as he made just one change to his starting lineup. ”But we had been able to compete with them physically and posed some problems towards the end of the game.”

Noves has kept the same halves of Baptiste Serin and Camille Lopez, and given a start to lock Sebastien Vahaamahina, with Julien Le Devedec on the bench. Wales is unchanged for a third straight match after beating Ireland 22-9.

”We absolutely need to improve, and show that this French team is not at the same level it was last year,” Noves said. ”We need to lose the fewest balls possible.”

Wales is out to produce a better performance, too.

”We are pleased with the way we played against Ireland, but there weren’t a lot of pats on the back,” Wales flanker Sam Warburton said. ”There were a lot of times when, in the second half, we could have lost that game. So we have still got a bit of an edge about us, because we want to put those things right.”

The match will also see skipper Alun Wyn Jones achieve something no other Welsh player has done: Starting 100 tests.

”The physicality they have is like a French team of old, if you like,” Jones said. ”Off-loading and physicality with a heavy set-piece. It is a difficult ask, but we are coming off the back of a positive display and we need to back it up now.”

Lineups:

France: Brice Dulin, Noa Nakaitaci, Remi Lamerat, Gael Fickou, Virimi Vakatawa, Camille Lopez, Baptiste Serin; Louis Picamoles, Kevin Gourdon, Fabien Sanconnie, Yoann Maestri, Sebastien Vahaamahina, Rabah Slimani, Guilhem Guirado (captain), Cyril Baille. Reserves: Camille Chat, Uini Atonio, Eddy Ben Arous, Julien Le Devedec, Damien Chouly, Antoine Dupont, Francois Trinh-Duc, Yoann Huget.

Wales: Leigh Halfpenny, George North, Jonathan Davies, Scott Williams, Liam Williams, Dan Biggar, Rhys Webb; Ross Moriarty, Justin Tipuric, Sam Warburton, Alun Wyn Jones (captain), Jake Ball, Tomas Francis, Ken Owens, Rob Evans. Reserves: Scott Baldwin, Nicky Smith, Samson Lee, Luke Charteris, Taulupe Faletau, Gareth Davies, Sam Davies, Jamie Roberts.