Warren Gatland has backed George North to be a success in the Welsh midfield
Warren Gatland has backed George North to shine in midfield as he prepares for his first Test start at centre.
Hopefully we can get the ball in George's hands as early as we can and give him the chance to use that footwork and create some space
The Wales head coach has made three changes to his side for this Friday's clash with France, Rhys Webb, Liam Williams and Luke Charteris all starting the game at the Millennium Stadium.
With Scott Williams, Jonathan Davies and Ashley Beck all out injured, Wales are light of midfield options. It means Northampton Saints man North partners Jamie Roberts at centre for Wales, the two men lining up against Wesley Fofana and Mathieu Bastareaud in what looks sure to be a big-hitting battle.
"George has had a few games at centre - we had some other discussions in terms of who we could play there but George has started there for Northampton and come into that position for us," said Gatland.
"He's an imposing figure to defend against, he takes a lot of stopping and that was part of our decision making as well as knowing we have to stop Bastareaud and bring him down.
"Hopefully we can get the ball in his hands as early as we can and give him the chance to use that footwork and create some space."
North moved to centre in Wales' last encounter - a 26-3 defeat to Ireland in Dublin, with Williams coming in on the left wing. Both begin in the same positions on Friday while Webb will make his first international start, replacing Mike Phillips at nine.
"We felt it's an opportunity for Rhys Webb - we felt like he needed some game time with the Ospreys and he played well at the weekend," Gatland added.
"Mike's been first choice for a long time and it's important we give someone else an opportunity in that position. Rhys is different to Mike as a player - we don't want him to be the same as Mike, we want him to do what he's good at doing.
"He has to play to his own strengths - a good kicking game, bringing runners off him around the fringes and that's what we want him to do.
"We've made a change at nine and with some other players, we've had some really honest discussions. It's a chance to put the disappointment from Ireland behind us, for them to redeem themselves and put things right."
Wales skipper Sam Warburton, who starts in an unchanged back row, said: "Everyone has knuckled down in training and there has been a lot of attention to detail. Everyone was desperate to play and it's good to have that nervousness in team selection meetings. The guys who have the chance to play have to give it their all.
"Beating France on Friday is our only target - everyone is looking forward to a home game and a win is a must."
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WRU Head of Rugby Josh Lewsey delivers his forward-looking review in this week's Principality Welsh Rugby Union Podcast. He looks at the future of the game in Wales along with National Rugby Development Manager Jason Lewis and National Performance Manager Gethin Watts. Warren Gatland and Gethin Jenkins look back at the Six Nations, Paul John talks about his new role at the Blues after leaving Wales Sevens, while we also talk to Wales Sevens coach Gareth Williams and captain Adam Thomas.