France edge past feisty Wales
March 18, 2006
Florian Fritz scores the winning try for France as Martyn Williams looks on
© Getty Images
France left Ireland the rugby equivalent of scoring 435 runs to win a one-day cricket international - a 34 point margin of victory at Twickenham - as their target to take the Six Nations championship as they came from behind to win at Cardiff.
France trailed by 10 points not long before half-time and were behind until eight minutes to go as Wales produced by far the best performance of their three since Scott Johnson took interim charge. With scrum-half Mike Phillips terrorising the French with a series of solo breaks and their overall game holding up much better than it had earlier in the season, Wales contributed their full share to a hugely exciting if untidy contest.
And they came desperately close to putting the contest out of French reach 10 minutes from time, when they still led 16-11. The mercurial Shane Williams chased his own kick ahead to the French line and was only denied by the, undoubtedly correct ruling, that Frederic Michalak had touched down with the upper half of his body as he scrambled back desperately, negating Williams' cleaner touch down.
Two minutes later Michalak was in action at the other end, chipping through perfectly for Florian Fritz to take the catch and charge over in spite of Martyn Williams' desperate cover tackle. Jean-Baptiste Elissalde converted and France led for the first time.
That lead was consolidated five minutes later as Elissalde landed the penalty that left Wales needing a try. With all Ireland cheering them on as well as the Millennium Stadium they tried desperately and were within a yard when the Shane-Martyn combination that destroyed France last year attacked the left corner. But France held on, for what looked a title-clinching win.
The second half had started like the first with a Phillips solo break, but it was France who had the better of the subsequent exchanges, twice earning but missing penalty chances before they cut into Wales's 13-6 interval lead with perhaps the best passage of play they had produced in the entire tournament.
Michalak kicked deep into the Wales 22 where Gavin Henson, on as a half-time substitute for Lee Byrne, fielded and turned beautifully to rifle a long clearance down the left. France took a quick line-out and Aurelien Rougerie drove a huge cross-field kick to the left where Fritz's hot pursuit left the Welsh defence no option but to concede a line-out.
The French line-out functioned well, as it did all afternoon, and a blind-side surge powered by Yannick Nyanga drove Dimitri Szarzewski over in the corner. All that spoilt France's pleasure was Elissalde's conversion striking the post to leave Wales a two-point lead.
That became five in the 55th minute when Henson landed a long penalty and France briefly rocked - Olivier Magne summing up their brief disarray when he took a quick tap penalty then sliced a kick straight into touch.
But that loss of composure was short-lived. France regained their shape and drive and the decisive Fritz try enabled a low-key post-match lap of honour acknowledging their fans without tempting fate too grievously - that was just about fair reward for their efforts.
Wales had made their by-now customary lively start to the match, with Phillips blasting through tacklers to make a clean break in the opening two minutes. He was tackled by Thomas Castaignede, but had his pop-up pass been taken by Martyn Williams, a try must surely have followed.
But within two more minutes Wales were on the scoreboard. France seemed content to concede the penalty after a Stephen Jones half-break had carried place close to their line and the Clermont outside-half kicked Wales into the lead.
France struck back six minutes later with Dimitri Yachvili's penalty after Ian Gough had been penalised for holding on, but the Welsh effort went on for longer and to greater effect than it had against Ireland or Italy.
Lee Byrne was within five yards of the French line after Dafydd James had worked him into space, then Wales showed greater resilience than in recent matches when France enjoyed their first period of sustained pressure - Yachvili at one point trying to work his way through the cover with a Zidane-style dribble - before retaking the lead after 25 minutes.
Hal Luscombe's clean break took the play close to the French 22 and while the supporting Steve Jones was unable to find a team-mate with his pass, Raphael Ibanez conceded both a penalty and 10 minutes in the sin-bin by taking out Robert Sidoli and Jones made it 6-3 from 20 metres.
It was now essential that Wales make their most of their temporary advantage, and the duly did after 31 minutes. Luscombe escaped down the left and found the surging Shane Williams. He beat Thomas Castaignede, only to be caught from behind by Julien Bonnaire, but had sufficient time and presence of mind to find Luscombe with a return pass. The Dragons centre crossed for his second try in 15 internationals halfway out and Jones landed the conversion.
Restored to full strength, France drove forward. Castaignede was held a yard out, Martyn Williams distracted Traille to negate a French overlap and Wales cleared, but Yachvili was given his chance when Wales offended 35 metres out and landed his kick to cut the interval deficit to 13-6.