Gritty France retains Wales to organize a confrontation in Paris
The Grand Slam awaits France thanks to a defensive masterclass from Shaun Edwards in his former playground.
France showed us they were a special team, but here they showed us the steel of champions as they kept Wales scoreless in a second half which they dominated. Edwards oversaw many breathless defensive stands at this stadium. This will take pride of place on his resume.
Only England oppose the sweep and it will take a leap of imagination the size of JK Rowling for Eddie Jones’ side to crush the party at the Stade de France. Paris is going to be a special place next Saturday night, especially after passing that grueling exam.
It’s one thing to play the rugby of the gods when every offload sticks and opponents are malleable to your liking. It was another equally stubborn and cunning opponent, Wales, who dragged France into a fight they previously thought was beyond them. After a blistering start in which Anthony Jelonch scored a sensational team try, France were hungry for possession and territory.
Three Dan Biggar penalties brought Wales within a point at half-time, but Edwards’ defense was equal to anything thrown at them in the second half.
Nobody expected it to be so difficult. No one expected it to be so tense. France may have played the pretty rugby, but Wales – through Biggar – played the tactical game. Such an occasion did not deserve the strips of empty seats. It was the first time in 20 years that Wales failed to sell out the game, hardly surprising given the chaos in Cardiff on a Friday night and £100 ticket prices.
Even with the seats empty, there’s always some malevolent magic in the air on a Friday night in Cardiff. Edwards reportedly spent the whole week warning France.
Yet the indiscipline that marred Wales’ first-half performance against England quickly surfaced as Antoine Dupont shot over, unloaded on Paul Willemse and Ryan Elias was mad for not rolling . Melvyn Jaminet converted but Wales quickly equalized when referee Matthew Carley penalized France for obstruction, Biggar did the honors from the tee.
Suddenly we had takeoff. A loose kick from Liam Williams was all the invitation France needed. Jaminet showed up and went with Gabin Villière on the left. The game swung to the right, where France’s big ball carriers gained ground, before returning to the understaffed left where Jaminet gave the goal pass to Jelonch.
Strong support from France created an electric atmosphere, but no sooner had they roared another clean break from Villière than Wales fans celebrated as Jaminet collapsed past his posts. Biggar closed the gap to four.
The game was falling apart and France was losing the exchange of kicks with Biggar giving one of the best 50:22 you will see this season. This time it led to points when Willemse failed to roll. So there was only a one-point lead at halftime.
The smallest measure of respite was offered by a penalty from Jaminet following excellent work by Jackal de Villière.
More pressure came when Romain Ntamack knocked down a high ball. It was France, however, who leaked the penalties as their frustration mounted.
Despite all the territory and possession Wales enjoyed, they still struggled to create real chances.
Finally, they fashioned an overlap, although Biggar opted to kick rather than pass to Taulupe Faletau on the outside. He was passed inside by Jonathan Davies who could not recover the ball. Luck gone.
Another chance for the French support to tentatively wave their scarves, which spun a little quicker as a blue maul made good ground but Ntamack was off target with a drop goal attempt.
With nine minutes left, Wales had a scrum outside the 22nd and although they gained ground, France pulled off a turnover that finally relieved the suffocating pressure.
Wales – L Williams (Anscombe 66), Cuthbert, Watkin, J Davies (Rees-Zammit 64), Adams, Biggar, T Williams, Thomas (Jones 66), Elias (Lake 54), Francis (Lewis 59), Rowlands, Beard, S Davies (Moriarty 61), Navidi (Morgan 73), Faletau.
France – Jaminet, Moefana, Fickou, Danty (Lebel 79), Villière, Ntamack, Dupont (Lucu 71), Baille (Gros 52), Marchand (Mauvaka 52), Atonio (Haouas 41), Woki (Flament 64), Willemse, Cros, Jelonch, Alldritt (Cretin 64).
Ref – Matthew Carley (RFU)