Inspired Warburton guides Wales to victory
February 21, 2014
Sam Warburton was superb © Getty Images
A wounded dragon is a dangerous beast. A captain who has had his pride dented after a fortnight of harsh verdicts and comments is also just as fierce. When the anthems were sung, the camera focused on Sam Warburton. The lighting made him look older than his still tender years as he gave the thousand-yard stare which suggested he was fed up of being written off. Warburton personified Wales' performance, it was a victory built on power and emotion.
France never stood a chance.
Gone was the improving French outfit we witnessed in the first two matches of the Six Nations. Their performance today was reminiscent of last season's team, a group of players void of structure and offering little going forward. Passes went to the ground, turnovers conceded, scrums buckled and frustration grew.
But putting this Welsh win down to French inadequacies is grossly unfair. In the run up to the match, Warren Gatland told his players they were playing for their international futures. They responded with a strong statement.
Tactically, Wales got this spot on as they used possession and territory wisely. Wales constantly forced France wide and eventually into touch. Wesley Fofana's threat was completely nullified and at half-time, it was indicative their tight-head Nicolas Mas had made four times as many metres with ball in hand than Fofana.
Wales will feel aggrieved at some of the opportunities they passed up, Leigh Halfpenny will inevitably lament a few mixed kicks at the posts but there was plenty for them to feel happy with.
The win was built around the strength of the pack. Gethin Jenkins was the official recipient of the Man of the Match award, but his fellow front-row colleague Adam Jones deserves equal praise. He out-muscled Thomas Domingo throughout while Jenkins and Paul James kept their side of the scrum heading forwards.
It is also testament to the performances of Jake Ball and Luke Charteris that Wales did not miss the presence of Alun Wyn Jones whose infected foot saw him ruled out at the eleventh hour. Both added a physical bulk to the pack and their showing was a hark back to the old days of locks being ballasts but these two also have wonderfully deft hands. Dan Lydiate was also playing like it was 2012 as he chopped down everything in his path - he made 14 tackles without missing one.
At scrum-half Rhys Webb gave Wales the quick ball they lacked against Ireland while Jamie Roberts and George North clicked in the centres. Much was made pre-match of the physical battle between the Welsh and French in the midfield but it was the home side who dominated this area. Mathieu Bastareaud offered little and ran predictable lines; Gael Fickou must start against Scotland in a fortnight's time.
But central to everything Wales did well was Warburton. He mixed superiority at the breakdown with a firm organisational presence in defence and attack. He also scored the try that ended any hope of a French fightback. It was a masterful performance.
Wales will probably wish they had another match tomorrow such was the intensity they played with but they now have the fortnight break until their game against England. They need results to go their way if they are to secure a record-breaking third championship on the bounce but for one night at least, Warburton and the rest of his team can feel hugely satisfied.
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd
Tom Hamilton is the Assistant Editor of ESPNscrum.