Wales remember how to win
February 9, 2013
Wales' Leigh Halfpenny enjoys the moment after his latest Man of the Match display © PA Photos
It may not have been very pretty but they will not care. Wales are back in the winning habit.
Discounting a clash with the Barbarians that the Welsh Rugby Union unfortunately deem worthy of Test caps, Wales had not tasted victory since setting the seal on their third Six Nations Grand Slam in eight years against France last March. During that time agony and embarrassment have been all too common with frustration and pressure building with each and every one of their eight defeats. But that tension eased in the French capital on Saturday night thanks to an epic defensive display from a team that had quite simply decided enough was enough.
Wales rediscovered the defensive steel that has underpinned much of their success in recent years to smother a French side that in contrast was a shadow of the brutal blue machine that has accounted for some of the world's best in recent months. Wales' outstanding team effort played on their rivals' insecurities in the wake of their shock opening defeat to Italy. Like the Azzurri, the Welsh denied France the freedom to express themselves, swarming in defence to slam the door shut at every turn.
Wales captain Ryan Jones set the tone with an inspirational display having been restored as skipper due to an injury to Sam Warburton. His all-action display included crucial tackles and equally valuable metres with ball in hand to keep his side on the front foot. Justin Tipuric, another to benefit from Warburton's enforced absence, trumped his skipper's tackle count and must surely be in line to retain his spot when his rival flanker returns to fitness as expected ahead of their next clash with Italy in a fortnight's time.
Despite the Welsh pack's sterling effort, there was precious little attacking endeavour of note from the visitors but what they did conjure brought a game-changing reward. Fly-half Dan Biggar's chip through the French defence in the closing moments of the game with the result in the balance was a gamble but when you have a winger of George North's quality hovering for the hint of an opportunity it is a calculated punt. The ball fell kindly for an on-rushing North who showed superb awareness to remain in-play while weathering the tackle of France's Francois Trinh-Duc on his way to touching down in the corner. Given Wales' record of losing winning positions, most notably in Australia last year, the game was clearly still not one but when the imperious Leigh Halfpenny landed a long-range penalty to cap an 11-point haul you knew that not even they could let this one slip.
They were helped no end by yet another lacklustre display from France. Given their trademark unpredictability we accept the odd off-day from a side with an equally rich tradition for champagne rugby but not this kind of prolonged pain - especially from a side considered the title favourites a little over a week ago. They have not lost their first two opening championship games since 1982 when they ended up propping up the table alongside Wales and suddenly with a trip to an in-form England looming next you fear they may not yet have hit rock bottom.
Coach Philippe Saint-Andre clearly has work to do with his side combining for a total of six points and failing to score a try at home in a championship clash for only the second time since 2000. Much of that impotency and lack of creativity can be laid at the feet of fly-half Frederic Michalak whose lethargy is beyond alarming. Saint-Andre kept faith with his playmaker despite a woefully inadequate performance against Italy but you sense - if just to protect his own reputation - that the axe will fall sooner rather than later. Michalak's lack of game time at No.10, due to his scrum-half role at Toulon, was a minor concern coming into the Six Nations but one that has been magnified no end in the last fortnight.
There were some not wanting for effort with No.8 Louis Picamoles a towering presence in a sea of mediocrity but what creativity the French could muster lacked conviction with some of their passing as loose as the terrible turf they were attempting to play on. Rest assured that the wind of change, whipped up by whistling from fans who expect so much better, will blow through Marcoucssis in the coming days.
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Graham Jenkins is the Senior Editor of ESPNscrum and you can also follow him on Twitter.