France survive Welsh scare
February 26, 2010
Alexis Palisson was gifted the easiest of tries by Wales
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France kept their Grand Slam dream alive with a 26-20 victory over Wales in Cardiff but were run close in the second-half by a Welsh side intent on repeating their improbable comeback against Scotland.
Les Bleus surged into a 20-0 half-time lead thanks to intercept tries from wing Alexis Palisson and fly-half Francois Trinh-Duc, but were reeled in by a rejuvenated home side after the break.
Leigh Halfpenny began the comeback with a try early in the second-half but Wales crucially failed to capitalise on a sin-binning for French scrum-half Morgan Parra. Parra and Freddie Michalak put France out of sight from the kicking tee, with Shane Williams' wonderful last minute try bringing up his half-century in Wales Tests but, crucially, not the victory.
A moment of silence was reserved before the game for lock Bradley Davies' mother, who died last week aged 46, and the Blues youngster responded with a bullish display. The home side welcomed back British & Irish Lions scrum-half Mike Phillips on the bench but he was unused by coach Warren Gatland with Richie Rees enjoying an excellent outing on his full debut.
Wales looked to replicate the French blitz in the opening stages, with either Jamie Roberts or James Hook flying out of the line, but the visitors were wise to the tactic and quickly spread the ball to the wings. Rees conducted the early possession well at the base, rapidly changing the point of attack, but their good work was undone by a terrible pass from Hook. The centre looped the ball into the arms of Palisson, who was waiting in the line and cantered clear for the easiest of scores under the posts.
The Welsh scrum faltered soon after, with Paul James penalised, and France opted for the corner. Despite having created space, Trinh-Duc elected for a drop-goal and saw it fall harmlessly wide of the posts. Wales profited from the next scrum with a penalty, but were driven back by the French defence after securing quick lineout ball. Stephen Jones was left lacking options either side as France soaked up the pressure and the Scarlets veteran could only knock on in the tackle.
Wales heaped more unneeded stress on their defence by losing the next lineout, with Mathieu Bastareaud rampaging forward and drawing penalty from Martyn Williams. Parra needed no second invitation to extend the lead to 10, France counter-punching like the finest of middleweights. Wales produced their first meaningful attack immediately after, with Jones carving a path through the French line following some neat interplay in midfield. The fly-half put boot to ball as the chasers converged, Poitrenaud beating Hook to the ball after scampering across from out wide.
A second Parra penalty followed a devastating scrum and Welsh hopes were fading fast as the clock ticked towards the half-hour mark. The game was taken away from Wales in the final minute of the half, when Trinh-Duc picked off a terrible offload from Williams and coasted in for a second try. With seconds left on the clock the hosts were guilty of twice failing to clear their lines and paid a heavy price.
Wales blew a gilt-edged opportunity immediately after the break. Some quick hands on their own 22 had France on the back-foot and Hook was able to collect an intelligent kick from Williams, only to have lock Luke Charteris as his only support. He could not gather the pass and knocked on. From the scrum Wales notched their first points as an offside call handed three to Jones, who broke Neil Jenkins' Welsh Championship scoring record.
Wales were increasingly direct in their approach and set up position in the French 22, garnering a second penalty as Thierry Dusautoir went in at the side. Jones again was on target but immediately after his forwards wasted an excellent attacking position by coughing up yet another lineout.
There was no such mistake on their next opportunity, as the pack tore into the French with a maul, Davies cajoling them forward. Jonathan Kaplan signalled a penalty but just as the crowd found their voice, Byrne kicked the penalty dead in a mindless piece of play that released the pressure valve. Wales had the bit between their teeth, though, and continued to press. Rees injected some pace into the game with a quick tap and as France scrambled in defence gaps appeared.
Williams collected the ball and threw an arching pass to the wing, where Halfpenny flew in to score in the corner. Jones curled in the conversion as the crowd grew in voice. As the players lined up for the restart, Parra saw yellow for a deliberate knock on in the build up to the try. With France down to 14 men Wales continued to press, but two terrible mistakes undermined their efforts. First Byrne missed another kick to touch before Roberts ignored his support after bursting clear and claiming a Jones chip.
France grappled and heaved their way back onto an even keel and replacement Michalak bashed over a long-range penalty to draw the sting of the Welsh comeback. As Wales' confidence deserted them Parra stroked over the final penalty of the evening following an offside in midfield, securing a deserved, if shaky, victory.
There was time left for one more play and it fell to Williams to seal another magic moment, the wing claiming the ball out wide and dancing through three French tackles to break Gareth Edwards' Championship try record. Michalak took the ball for the restart and in a moment that will have pained Scotland fans, chopped the ball into touch to end the game.
Huw Baines is the Assistant Editor of ESPNscrum.