Nowadays a bit of pre-match verbal sparring seems, as the French put it, de rigueur and Welsh prop Wyn Jones’s provocative suggestion that the French pack might have to resort to cheating elicited one heck of a reaction, a level of apparent outrage as high as the Eiffel. It was a Welsh team of humongous experience, having amassed no fewer than 859 caps playing against Fabien Galthié’s French side which has dynamic youth on its side and explosive players such as centres Dupont and Ntamack fired up by recent international wins. There was also a blue defence getting tougher and tougher under the surefire tutelage of Shaun Edwards. For Wales Dan Biggar was back after head injury assessments, offering the sort of expansive No 10-driven play favoured by coach Wayne Pivac but which also made him a marked man.
An early French turnover settled their nerves but strong carries by Ken Owens, Tipuric and piledriver Ross Moriarty led to a Welsh penalty slotted through the posts with consummate ease by Biggar in the third minute. The French reply came swiftly. Full back Bouthier snatched a high ball kicked by Ntmack from the grasp of Leigh Halfpenny’s hands to scorch over the line for a converted try. A lofty ball sent from Biggar to George North on the wing led to a clash of heads, with Johnny McNicholl coming on to permanently replace him. Biggar, ever apparent, chased down his own kick and soon thereafter shot off another aimed for Josh Adams on the wing, an act of superb judgement almost rewarded with a try. Roman Ntmack kicked a penalty to put France 10-3 up at the 20-minute mark with French pressure in the tackle area reaping rewards.
A passage of ping pong kicking back and fore led to a penalty in the corner. Wales piled on the pressure with Ball and Tipuric and Moriarty all in the charge repelled by the boys in bleu. Then French offside gave Biggar another chance to imitate a cucumber, cooly settling the ball between the uprights. Picout responded capping off a passage of fluid interplay with some dancing footwork for a try disallowed after a forward pass. The French now seemed in the ascendancy and their put in near the corner cleverly set up all 20 stone of Paul Willemse to charge over the line rather than the expected drive. The resultant conversion put the visitors 17-6 up after half an hour. A Welsh burst by Nick Tompkins picking up a Biggar chip and then a show of speed by Gareth Davies eventually saw Wales denied the line but a penalty kick by Biggar kept the red points ticking over. Now two scores now separated the two sides. At this stage, it was a tight game, tight as a tourniquet.
Wales now picked up the pace and the French defence held firm, if often illegally. Gregory Alldritt was eventually sin-binned setting up a Welsh scrum under the posts to take advantage of the extra man. Welsh pressure was relentless, the French defence sagging as play entered the 43rd minute. Another Welsh put in ratcheted up the pressure with Hadleigh Parkes breaking the line, but Shaun Edwards’ defence held firm, mopping up wave after red wave. Thus, in extra time Wales failed to capitalize on two penalties in the French twenty-two after a spill by McNicholl and Faletau being brought down just before reaching the whitewash. Throughout the half, Welsh attacking intention had been consistently stifled and suffocated by aggressive French line speed and at times had looked all at sea. Wales have a habit of coming back from this sort of disadvantage in games against France and there was a Frenchman in the sin bin. The augurs for the second half were uncertain to say the least. Wales 9. France 17.
An opening twelve-phase movement by France ended with a mis-kick into touch but soon French forward pressure and a change of tempo restored confidence. What did Wales need now? Well a rip and kick from Tompkins and a put in near the corner. This time the Welsh forwards would not be denied and Hadleigh Parkes set up Dillon Lewis for a try. Over to Biggar who insouciantly put it over, bringing the Welsh within one point, 16-17.
Biggar’s work rate and Tipuric’s work as a jackal led to a red scrum which set up a fluid passage of play entirely spoiled by Ntmack who intercepted, slipped into sixth gear and sprinted for a try, giving the French an eight pount cushion for the second time in the game. Time to dig deep but Wales failed to punch forward. On came Tomos Williams for Gareth Davies even as Wyn Jones was penalised for collapsing the ruck and a mountainous kick set up a promising French corner. Wales mopped up the pressure but a kick through almost put Thomas over the line and soon the French were coming at them again.
In the final quarter, Wales needed two scores and Wales forward momentum came to a halt after a Hadleigh Parkes miss-kick yielded advantage to France and a penalty against Dillon Lewis. The ever-dependable Ntmack punt-gunned a long kick for a further three points. Tomos Williams, who often displays his basketball skills was soon having to show his footballing prowess as he tried to control the ball near the French line while Josh Adams had one of his rare opportunities in the game before turning his ankle.
Wainwright came on and was quickly impactful in the line-out and a scrum to Wales following a French knock on was heatedly debated by Alun Wyn Jones who felt they deserved more. With fifteen minutes remaining the Welsh shove resulted in a penalty as France collapsed the scrum. French replacements added fresh legs and twenty stone players to the mix. The yellow card appeared as Haouas was punished, bringing the French down to fourteen men for the second time in the game. Twelve minutes to go, a French scrum with two very young props to defeat but France stole a penalty with a strong drive. A pivotal period for Wales had turned the wrong way, the game seemingly spinning away from them.
Biggar failed to get a penalty kick over the touchline and the French were proving successfully dangerous in the turnover. A costly mistake by Wainwright who chose to go the wrong way despite a three-man overlap was rectified by Biggar who scythed through blue shirts with ball in hand. Cue eruption of Principality stadium firecrackers of applause. So, the scoreline Wales 23-France 27 with five short minutes to go as France sauntered for their put in. An apparent rare show of indiscipline by Alun Wyn Jones led to a penalty kick for the French, perhaps for the game, which drifted left of the post. With ninety seconds to go Hadleigh Parkes had a powerful run, followed by a mad dash by Tompkins backed by Gareth Davies came to nothing. Any entente cordiale was finally lost as tempers flared after the final whistle.
Zut alors! A Welsh loss on home turf against France for the first time since 2010 and an uphill struggle now facing them in their next couple of games: French hopes of winning a Grand Slam very much alive. Experience had ultimately been nullified by youth and vigour.