Warren Gatland started the Six Nations by shaking things up with his Wales selections and he has ended it doing the same. Robin Davey takes a look at the team to play France and admits he finds some decisions hard to fathom.
A series of shocks – that can be the only conclusion about the Welsh team as they target second place in the Six Nations and a possible £3.3m jackpot for the WRU by finishing runners-up in the table.
Ireland have already won the championship and victory over England at Twickenham on Saturday will give them the Grand Slam for only the third time.
But if Wales can beat France with a bonus point on Super Saturday, second place will be theirs – even a non-bonus win could be enough – providing a handy financial benefit. The Union had budgeted for a fourth-placed finish which would have landed £1.8m in prize money.
Coach Warren Gatland continues to surprise this Six Nations. I doubt anyone would have predicted Aaron Shingler being left out of the side to face France and by the same token not many would have forecast Dan Biggar being in it.
Shingler has been one of the players of the tournament with his powerful runs, his line-out ability and strong defence, surely a shoo-in, yet Gatland has omitted him against the French.
Instead, he has gone for Justin Tipuric and Josh Navidi as flankers, though hardly a weakness. There’s no place in the starting line-up for Shingler and none in the 23 for James Davies after his belated call-up against Italy.
Ross Moriarty suffers a similar fate after being a regular throughout the competition, but in reality he was only keeping the seat warm for Taulupe Faletau, once the Bath and former Dragons No.8 returned from injury.
And the omission of Rhys Patchell from the 23 raises more eyebrows after his sparkling performance against Scotland in the opening match, though marred slightly by something more indifferent against England in the next game.
Gareth Anscombe is another who might have started in the roller-coaster 10 position after looking the part in his previous two appearances, but instead Gatland has gone back to Biggar, back to the basics you might say.
For that is where Biggar excels – reliable and defensively superb, though not that much of a threat in attack. But Gatland, though disappointed with Biggar’s game against Ireland, when he also fed his habit of constantly arguing with the referee, has still recalled him.
That, despite the coach admitting he may have made a mistake in selecting him in the first place. Stranger and stranger!
Steff Evans is another player who can feel hard done by, dropped though previously a threat with his elusive running, but suffering from defensive frailties.
As a result, Gatland clearly feels he can’t trust the Scarlets player so he has been demoted in favour of Liam Williams, who switches to the wing with Leigh Halfpenny recalled at full back.
And yet another player, Owen Watkin, can also be considered unfortunate after impressing against Italy, but sidelined against the French in favour of the more experienced Scott Williams.
George North, on the other hand, was a must – fully fit again and his try double against the Azzurri taking his tally to a remarkable 34 in 75 appearances for Wales and the Lions.
As for the outcome of Saturday’s match, as ever with the French it depends on the old cliché about which team turns up – the one which got the better of England in a dramatic clash or the one which had previously faltered.
The type of free-flowing game which had so characterised French rugby for decades has long gone, replaced by a more pragmatic approach, maybe dictated by the huge number of foreigners in their domestic game, denying their own an opportunity.
France haven’t won in Cardiff since 2010 and Wales won five in a row until last year when they were pipped 20-18 at the Stade de France.
The French don’t travel particularly well, as reflected by results in their Top 14 competition, and a Welsh team urged on by their fanatical fans ought to win.
Whether they will secure a bonus point as well to be sure of second place in the table is another matter. But if Ireland beat England at Twickenham in the match before theirs, they won’t need it.