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France defeat leaves Wales in uncharted waters under Warren Gatland

11 Mar 2024 8 minute read
France’s Romain Taofifenua on the way over to score France’s fourth try. Photo David Davies/PA Wire.

Simon Thomas

Wales are now in new territory under Warren Gatland and it’s not a pleasant place.

Never before during the Kiwi’s two tenures have they lost the opening four matches of the Six Nations.

The last time it happened was back in 2007, the season before Gatland first took the helm.

On that occasion, Gareth Jenkins’ team managed to avoid a whitewash by beating England in the final game of the Championship.

Whether the class of 2024 can follow suit and pull off a last round victory remains to be seen.

It says much about where they are right now that they will arguably go into the wooden spoon decider at home to Italy as underdogs.

Full of beans

The Azzurri will arrive in Cardiff full of beans having beaten Scotland 31-29, on the back of coming so close to defeating France during the 13-13 draw in Lille.

They have quality players, they are producing some fine rugby and they will be brimming over with confidence.

In contrast, Wales have just shipped a record number of points against the French in Cardiff.

The 45 they conceded yesterday surpassed the 40 from September 1996, with only the 51-0 drubbing at Wembley in 1998 seeing more in the debit column during a “home” match.

They are bottom of the table, four points adrift of Italy, and have leaked more tries – 14 – than any other side during the course of this Championship campaign.

Tough times then amid the very real possibility of a first whitewash since 2003, which was the only year they have picked up the wooden spoon in the Six Nations era.

The heat is on Gatland and he didn’t appear in the best of moods post-match as he initially walked away from his interview with BBC reporter Sonja Mclaughlan after seemingly being kept waiting for longer than he was happy with, an incident that was caught on camera.

He did subsequently go on to do his TV interviews and, in the course of one of them, was asked whether the Italy match was now a must-win.

“Well, they are all must-win games. That’s the pressure you guys will put on us for next week,” he replied.

“That will be the narrative, ‘It’s a must-win, it’s a must-win’.

“You have just got to embrace the pressure. That’s what Test match rugby is all about.

“You’ve got to be honest with yourself, you can’t go into hiding places, you have got to puff your chest out and embrace it.

“It’s a big game for us. It’s massive, you can’t hide away from it, you have got to embrace the challenge.

“You can’t go into your shell.

“There’s going to be a lot of external pressure and expectation. We understand that – international rugby is always about that. We’ve got to embrace it and front up and make sure we work hard and give a performance at home. It’s about stepping up.”

Raw power

For a while, it looked as though Wales were going to take that step up against France.

They created their best try of the Championship early in the second half with centre Joe Roberts touching down to give them a 24-20 lead and they were still ahead with just 15 minutes to go.

But the raw power of the French eventually told as a trio of replacements crossed, with their 6-2 bomb squad split on the bench taking its toll on the outmuscled hosts who went down 45-24 in the end.

Giving his take, Gatland said: “We just didn’t manage the last 15 minutes and that’s really, really disappointing.

“We probably overplayed a little bit and there were some soft points given away.

“We have got to stop hurting ourselves so much and learn fast.

“We have got a young group of players. Some of them are not quite ready at this level. They have got to learn really quickly what Test match rugby is all about.”

Rio Dyer scores Wales’ first try against France. Photo David Davies/PA Wire.

Gatland has no such shortage of experience in the Test arena, but he too can legitimately be questioned over his decision-making.

Not for the first time during this Six Nations, he raised eyebrows with his substitutions, taking half-backs Tomos Williams and Sam Costelow off after just 56 minutes.

They had been going well from an attacking perspective, stretching and stressing the French defence, while the men who came on for them – Gareth Davies and Ioan Lloyd – weren’t able to deliver the control to navigate the ship home.

But, ultimately, the main reason for the end result was the huge contrast in physicality between the two teams.

France were on top in the scrum and totally dominant on the gain line, with their array of monstrous forward carriers making ground with ease and presenting quick ruck ball on a plate for Man of the Match scrum-half Nolann Le Garrec. In the end, power won the day.

It was a point hammered home by former Wales and Lions captain Sam Warburton during his post-match analysis on the BBC.

“The word power is used a lot in commentary and rightly so,” he said.

“You can talk about all these nice fluffy things in rugby, but if you don’t win the physical battle, more often than not you can’t win a game.

“Wales are just lacking that size compared to France.

“The reality check is they are not physical enough.

“You can not play international rugby and be that inferior from a physicality perspective.

“When you’ve got big guys coming at you and you can’t stop them, it’s going to be a tough day.

“We don’t have the playing pool right now of the power of England, Ireland and France. We need to find those players from somewhere.”

Plusses 

There were some individual plusses.

Rio Dyer had another excellent game on the wing, constantly looking a threat in attack, with the high point being his ninth minute try.

Picking up the ball on the bounce some 40 metres out, he broke the tackle of flanker Francois Cros and capitalised on debutant full-back Leo Barre being out of position as he raced away unopposed.

Recalled centre Owen Watkin also had his moments, notably with the break that set up Tomos Williams’ try, as he dummied and twice stepped inside, handing off both Thomas Ramos and Nicolas Depoortere before delivering the inside scoring pass to the ever supporting Williams.

Skipper Daf Jenkins gave it everything in his new position on the blindside flank, putting in 26 tackles, while Elliott Dee was once again spot on with his lineout throwing and Aaron Wainwright continued his fine form at No 8.

There was also a clinical edge in attack, best illustrated by Roberts’ try three minutes into the second half.

It really was a quality score, as the hosts went through ten phases, utilising the full width of the pitch.

France’s Georges-Henri Colombe is tackled by Wales’ Will Rowlands David Davies/PA Wire.

There were a couple more steps inside from Watkin, strong carries from Dee, Will Rowlands and Gareth Thomas, plus a one-handed offload from Costelow to Tomos Williams after a neat exchange with Tommy Reffell.

The cut and thrust of the move sucked in the French defence to such an extent that there was a two-man overlap when the ball was shipped left, with Roberts opting not to utilise it but go for the line himself, just managing to roll over and dab down.

At that point, the signs were really promising.

But, gradually, the French power play began to tell as they went back to basics and pummeled away remorselessly via their big men – very big men!

When that was then combined with Damian Penaud coming alive out on the wing, the Welsh dam finally burst in the last quarter, with subs George-Henri Colombe, Romain Taofifenua and Maxime Luc all going over to add to first half scores from Gael Fickou and Le Garrec.

Pressure

While they came under heavy pressure, Wales didn’t help their own cause, with errors contributing to the tries conceded, amid missed tackles by Costelow and Cam Winnett, a charge down of a Gareth Davies kick and a wayward lineout throw from debutant hooker Evan Lloyd.

The final scoreline was a painful one considering there had been just a couple of points between the sides up until the last ten minutes.

But, in truth, it was a game in which France had by far the upper hand in terms of territory (66 per cent) and possession (56 per cent), while they made 526 metres compared to 361 by the hosts who were faced with having to attempt 202 tackles, some 72 more than Les Bleus.

The better – and crucially bigger – team won.

So for Wales, it’s played four, lost four and just one last chance for redemption against an Italian side who will really be fancying it as they look to record their best ever Six Nations campaign.

There’s a tough week ahead.


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Steve Duggan
Steve Duggan
1 month ago

I’m not a big rugby fan but it’s one area recently where Wales has had it good. However, times are hard now though I seem to remember Wales winning it’s first grand slam for years just two years after the wooden spoon of 2003. So hopefully it’ll be the same with this group of players. Take the hits now (I don’t think we’ll beat the Italians) and learn from it – then do a massive counter punch next year or the year after.

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