Gatland's bulldozers out to clear path through France

French resistance bolstered by baulk of huge centre Bastareaud
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The Independent Online

Comparisons over time can be pointless, not least in rugby whose players and supporters tend to live in the moment, but a glance at the Wales team beaten by France in Paris two years ago is revealing. Two thirds of the starting line-up remains intact for this evening's spectator-unfriendly kick-off of 9pm locally (8pm GMT) – Shane Williams, Martyn Williams, Ryan Jones; that calibre of fellow – but the five who have changed make this Wales arguably better and certainly bigger.

Jamie Roberts, Leigh Halfpenny (with his penchant for long-range goal kicks), Mike Phillips, Adam Jones and Andy Powell are the five alterations, from one corresponding fixture to the other. Each represents the muscle added by head coach Warren Gatland during his 14 months in the job, and none of them will blanche too much at the French call-up for the 17st Stade Français centre Mathieu Bastareaud.

Wales' novices in terms of facing France on home soil are Roberts – assuming his troublesome shoulder is OK – Halfpenny and Powell. The Ospreys lock Alun-Wyn Jones can fill them in. Jones needed five stitches in a gash under his eye when he was elbowed aside by Lionel Nallet for the try which swung the match France's way in 2007. There was a sense of the inevitable then that after a good start by Wales they would be reeled in. They did not possess the self-belief since engendered by Gatland, Shaun Edwards and the 2008 Grand Slam.

Whether Wales can bulldoze through – or perhaps dodge around – this stumbling block in the way of a repeat Slam remains to be seen. Anecdotal evidence suggests many Welsh supporters are snubbing the Six Nations Championship's first Friday night fixture, but Shane Williams is back after missing the win over England which followed success in Scotland. "We have two sides in this match that play attractive rugby," said Rob Howley, Wales' backs coach, yesterday. "France have that X factor, that instinctiveness, that mercurialness, with players who can beat opposition defences on a sixpence. So do we."

France have lost in Ireland and beaten Scotland, and they now have Benoît Baby at fly-half with the immense debutant Bastareaud, a cousin of Arsenal's William Gallas, as a minder. Wales have Gavin Henson lurking on the bench as cover. The perma-tanned one has not played for five weeks, unless you count the reported larks on a pool table in a Cardiff pub. But Gatland rates Henson highly, and the Kiwi coach's judgement of Welsh personnel has yet to be found wanting.

France: M Medard (Toulouse); J Malzieu (Clermont Auvergne), M Bastareaud (Stade Français), Y Jauzion (Toulouse), C Heymans (Toulouse); B Baby (Clermont Auvergne), M Parra (Bourgoin); F Barcella (Biarritz), D Szarzewski (Stade Français), S Marconnet (Stade Français), L Nallet (Castres, capt), S Chabal (Sale Sharks), T Dusautoir (Toulouse), F Ouedraogo (Montpellier), I Harinordoquy (Biarritz). Replacements: B Kayser (Leicester), T Domingo (Clermont Auvergne), R Millo-Chluski (Toulouse), L Picamoles (Montpellier), S Tillous-Borde (Castres), F Trinh-Duc (Montpellier), C Poitrenaud (Toulouse).

Wales: L Byrne (Ospreys), L Halfpenny (Cardiff Blues), T Shanklin (Cardiff Blues), J Roberts (Cardiff Blues), S Williams (Ospreys); S Jones (Scarlets), M Phillips (Ospreys); G Jenkins (Cardiff Blues), M Rees (Scarlets), A Jones (Ospreys), I Gough (Ospreys), A-W Jones (Ospreys), R Jones (Ospreys, capt), M Williams (Cardiff Blues), A Powell (Cardiff Blues). Replacements: H Bennett (Ospreys), J Yapp (Cardiff Blues), L Charteris (Newport Gwent Dragons), D Jones (Scarlets), D Peel (Sale Sharks), J Hook (Ospreys), G Henson (Ospreys).

Referee: M Lawrence (South Africa).