Best saved to last but where now for Wales and Warren Gatland?
It may seem odd to talk about positives and progress after shipping more than 40 points, but that’s where Wales are after what has been a turbulent and, at times, tortuous Six Nations.
Now admittedly, the bar has been set pretty low over the past seven weeks, but Warren Gatland’s team did save their best until last, particularly when it comes to their attacking play.
To score four tries against a Shaun Edwards coached defence is no mean feat, while only once in the last 20 years have Wales come away from Paris with more points.
Gatland will also take heart from the character his team showed against a top quality French outfit. Trailing 34-7 with more than half an hour still to go, they could easily have caved in and ended up on the wrong end of a cricket score.
But, to their credit, they kept fighting and kept playing, earning reward with tries from Bradley Roberts, Tomos Williams and Rio Dyer to add to George North’s early effort amid a flying start, with winger Dyer breaking clear in the final play to secure a bonus point and make it 41-28 at full-time.
However, there are still major issues to address and a huge amount of ground to make up on the leading teams, with the World Cup just six months away.
They leaked five more tries to take their tally conceded over the course of the Championship up to 19. Despite a change in personnel, the midfield defence was once again a concern, most notably when Gael Fickou waltzed through a gaping hole for his team’s fourth try.
The other main problem area is the breakdown. Whoever Wales have tried in the back row, they just don’t seem able to slow or steal opposition ball. When you are repeatedly faced with rapid recycling, it does make life very difficult and you almost inevitably find yourself stretched to breaking point, as was the case with the other French tries.
In contrast, Wales are still struggling to clear out effectively at times when they are in possession, with a couple of promising positions spurned through conceding turnovers.
So those are key matters that will have to be addressed when they regroup to prepare for the World Cup, with warm-up games against England (twice) and South Africa in August.
Gatland will also have to make his mind up on his first-choice team after a sustained bout of tinkering during this tournament.
But the big plus has been the improvement on the attacking front, which had been such a weakness in the opening three rounds.
They were more clinical in the victory over Italy, albeit amid a pretty prosaic pattern of play, focused on kicking and hard carrying, amid echoes of Warrenball.
Against the French, the shackles were suddenly off and we saw a very different Wales.
From the first whistle, they really took the game to Les Bleus, showing a fresh ambition in terms of style and intent.
That was demonstrated by their decision to send kickable penalties into the corner three times in the opening six minutes.
The attacking game-plan was also immediately apparent. The kicking policy was put to one side in favour of keeping the ball in hand and adopting a much more expansive approach.
In particular, offloading was the order of the day in a bid to avoid the Edwards-schooled defensive breakdown work of the French.
In all, Wales were to put in 16 offloads during the course of the game as they looked to keep the ball alive and off the deck.
Their sustained early pressure was rewarded on seven minutes, with Ken Owens surging up to the whitewash off a lineout maul drive and Rhys Webb fizzing out a long pass that beat two defenders and enabled North to run in under the posts.
It had been an exhilarating opening and a breath of fresh air.
The attitude seemed to be ‘We know the French are going to score tries, so we are going to have to play and do the same’.
They were right about Les Bleus. Back they came, showcasing their Gallic flair with half-backs Antoine Dupont and Romain Ntamack weaving their magic.
For their opener, Man of the Match Ntamack went outside Nick Tompkins and burst upfield before giving a one-handed feed to Dupont who sent out a huge pass to put Damian Penaud in at the corner.
Then, for their second score, it was Dupont who made the key incision ahead of crisp passing down the line allowing Jonathan Danty to outflank a sucked-in defence.
By this stage, you were starting to see just why Wales had wanted to avoid breakdowns as the French had won a couple of jackal penalties to shift the momentum.
Leading 20-7 at the interval, the home side didn’t waste any time wrapping up the bonus point on the resumption. Giant prop Uini Atonio – the “Human piano” – crashed over after another Dupont dart and then came that Fickou effort which exposed the dislocated dog-leg in the Welsh midfield, with Dan Biggar flying up, Tompkins stepping in and North staying in his channel, culminating in Ntamack putting Fickou into a gap between North and Dyer.
At that point, you really feared the worst, thinking we could be heading for another record defeat to follow others earlier in their tournament.
But to Wales’ credit, they didn’t roll over and stuck to their new-found attacking philosophy, playing with width and adventure, an approach that very much suited Justin Tipuric.
It was the Ospreys openside who secured the turnover ahead of Roberts’ try on 56 minutes after France had run from behind their own line.
Presented with a prime attacking opportunity, Wales executed. Biggar looped around North to take an offload and give a fingertip pass in one movement as the ball was zipped out to Josh Adams on the right wing. Then, from the resulting ruck, replacement hooker Roberts took a pass at pace to just reach the line.
Ten minutes later, it was the turn of another sub to make an impact off the bench. Tipuric kept the ball alive out on the left touchline and, after a strong carry from hard-working fellow flanker Aaron Wainwright, it was left to scrum-half Tomos Williams to snipe over from close range.
The game was gone, with Penaud claiming a second, but Wales kept attacking and had the final word through Dyer. Again Tipuric was to the fore, twice joining the backs as they probed down the left, with Dyer then stepping inside Thomas Ramos and going through Penaud to cap what has been a very decent recent return to the side.
That was the losing bonus point and that was the final whistle, with Wales finishing fifth in the table which is a fair reflection of their place in the pecking order.
It has been a tough, tough campaign both on and off the field, but Gatland was in pretty upbeat mood afterwards.
“We went out there and tried to play some really positive rugby,” said the Kiwi coach.
“I get pigeon-holed in terms of certain ways, but you ask these players and it’s about them making the right decisions and being brave. If they think things are on, then take those opportunities.
“We started the game well, then we got behind and came back towards the end. The bench had a much bigger impact than in previous games.
“I am really proud. We have still got a lot of work to do, but I thought we showed some real character out there.
“As this tournament has gone on, we have improved. We wanted to find out about a number of players and give some youngsters an opportunity. They will have learned from those experiences and will continue to develop and grow.
“I am really confident by the time we get together preparing for the World Cup we will be in good shape and a lot better than we are at the moment.
“I think we will give a lot of teams a few surprises come World Cup time.
“There have been some good improvements and we will continue to get better.
“I have said to the players, if we go and do the work that’s required I am confident we will have a really positive World Cup.”
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