Six Nations 2014: George North moves to centre as Wales make three changes
Six Nations 2014: Warren Gatland calls on Wales to put things right against France as George North moves to centre
George North will make his first start for Wales at centre in a reshuffled back-line against France on Friday.
The Northampton Saints wing is preferred to James Hook to partner Jamie Roberts in the midfield after Scott Williams was the latest specialist centre to pick up an injury in Wales’ dismal 26-3 defeat by Ireland in Dublin.
We see the game as a huge opportunity for us to put things right
Warren Gatland makes three changes to his starting XV with Liam Williams in for injured centre Scott Williams and the Scarlets man will take North’s place on the left wing; Perpignan’s Luke Charteris returns to the second row to partner Alun Wyn Jones.
Rhys Webb, who was outstanding in the first half of the Ospreys’ record 75-7 demolition of Treviso on Sunday, replaces Mike Phillips for his first Wales start at scrum-half.
The Kiwi coach has resisted the urge to make further changes in the pack which was neutralised by Ireland, so blindside flanker Dan Lydiate continues, as does Scarlets outside-half Rhys Priestland.
But Ospreys No9 Dan Biggar makes his first appearance on the bench in this Six Nations championship and will be expected to make an appearance if Priestland fails to deliver again.
France go into the match unbeaten after wins against England and Italy from their opening two matches with Philippe Saint-Andre’s squad eyeing a win over the reigning champions to set up a Grand Slam march.
Determined to bounce back from the Dublin disappointment and keep their own title ambitions alive, Wales will take heart from wins over France in their last two encounters in the Six Nations.
“Friday is a massive game for us,” Gatland said. “As a squad we have a huge amount of experience in this tournament and we will be calling on that this weekend. We see the game as a huge opportunity for us to put things right.
“Luke [Charteris] has been working really hard over the past couple of weeks and it’s a big boost for us that he is back.
“I thought Rhys [Webb] played excellently for the Ospreys at the weekend and he comes in and gives us a different dimension and it’s a great opportunity for him.
“George [North] moves into the midfield and he brings great footwork to the role and we were impressed when he went there against Australia in the autumn. His partnership with Jamie will be important as we look to stop the directness of France and Mathieu Bastareaud.”
Wales’ front row remains unchanged with Gethin Jenkins coming back from Cardiff Blues unscathed to start alongside big-hitting Ospreys duo Richard Hibbard and Adam Jones, while captain Sam Warburton remains at openside flanker with Talupe Faletau at No8.
In the back three, Liam Williams will line up alongside Toulon-bound kicking machine Leigh Halfpenny who continues at full-back with Cardiff Blues’ Alex Cuthbert on the right wing.
After failing to see any game time in the first two matches, Hook will hope to get a run out as he again provides cover at centre and full-back from the bench.
Wales: Leigh Halfpenny (Cardiff Blues); Alex Cuthbert (Cardiff Blues), George North (Northampton Saints), Jamie Roberts (Racing Metro), Liam Williams (Scarlets); Rhys Priestland (Scarlets), Rhys Webb (Ospreys); Gethin Jenkins (Cardiff Blues), Richard Hibbard (Ospreys), Adam Jones (Ospreys), Luke Charteris (Perpignan), Alun Wyn Jones (Ospreys), Dan Lydiate (Perpignan), Sam Warburton (Cardiff Blues, captain), Talupe Faletau (Newport Gwent Dragons).
Replacements: Ken Owens (Scarlets), Paul James (Bath Rugby), Rhodri Jones (Scarlets), Jake Ball (Scarlets), Justin Tipuric (Ospreys); Mike Phillips (Racing Metro), Dan Biggar (Ospreys), James Hook (Perpignan).
France: Brice Dulin (Castres); Yoann Huget (Toulouse), Mathieu Bastareaud (Toulon), Wesley Fofana (Clermont Auvergne), Hugo Bonneval (Stade Français); Jules Plisson (Stade Français), Jean-Marc Doussain (Toulouse), Louis Picamoles (Toulouse), Wenceslas Lauret (Racing Metro), Yannick Nyanga (Toulouse), Yoann Maestri (Toulouse), Pascal Pape (Stade Français, captain), Nicolas Mas (Montpellier), Dimitri Szarzewski (Racing Metro), Thomas Domingo (Clermont Auvergne)
Replacements: Brice Mach (Castres), Yannick Forestier (Castres), Vincent Debaty (Clermont Auvergne), Sebastien Vahaamahina (Perpignan), Damien Chouly (Clermont Auvergne); Maxime Machenaud (Racing Metro), Remi Tales (Castres), Gael Fickou (Toulouse)