Wales fight back to claim thriller in Paris
February 26, 2005
Martyn Williams caps a remarkable comeback from Wales with his second try
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A century on from the winter when Evan Roberts' preaching swept Wales , another Welsh revival can now be proclaimed. Wales sit, for 24 hours at least, at the top of the Six Nations championship after a victory which displayed the character as well as the quality of Mike Ruddock's team.
This was never easy. It took guts and nerve as well to withstand a devastating French start and come through the first-half still in contention. Then, after turning the game upside down with their own spectacular start to the second half, they had to cope with a ferocious French fightback in the final quarter to hang on for a memorable victory.
Little looked unlikelier than a Welsh comeback at half-time, with a nine-point deficit made still less palatable by the news that captain Gareth Thomas would not be returning for the second half. But they responded with an extraordinary burst of attacking play, reminiscent of the barrage that once generated two tries in seven minutes for Phil Bennett back in the era when Wales and France routinely played for Grand Slams. Within seconds of the restart Steve Jones was breaking down the field and within five minutes the remarkable Martyn Williams had crossed twice, Jones had added a conversion and 6-15 had become 18-15.
Wales controlled territory and possession for most of the third quarter without adding points, then briefly lost their way badly on three-quarter time. Three consecutive lines-out were wasted by a French steal, a delayed put-in and a crooked throw. From their own 22, France were inside Wales 's and Frederic Michalak, who had replaced Yann Delaigue in the 52 nd minute, levelled the scores with a drop-goal.
But within three minutes Jones had restored the lead with a penalty, then added a well-taken angled drop-goal to extend the advantage to six points with seven to go. But the toughest spell was still to come. Three times France drove a scrum towards the Wales line. Twice it went down, Wales were penalised and a penalty-try, with easy conversion to follow, loomed. But France lost their way on scrum number three, Gareth Cooper hacked clear and the danger was seen off, but only for the moment.
Even as the clock showed 80 minutes France were driving forward, besieging the Welsh line. It took a final scrum and Steve Jones's joyous kick high into the crowd behind his own line to confirm a victory of immense significance which had looked highly unlikely less than two hours earlier as the French - who played better here is losing than they had in winning their previous two games - got off to a rocketing start.
'Jean Prat is watching you',the French sports daily L'Equipe had proclaimed, and after an immaculately-observed minute's silence, France began as though determined to impress the great man, who had died on Friday.
They played more good rugby in the first five minutes than in the whole of their previous matches against Scotland and England, and their opening try, scored after four minutes by impressive scrum-half Dimitri Yachvili, was no more than they deserved. The French had offered a clear statement of intent by disrupting Wales 's first scrum and launched a series of flowing assaults. They looked to have lost momentum when Serge Betsen was halted 10 yards out, but the flanker's quick hands and a superb transfer by prop Sylvain Marconnet created the time and space in which Yachvili was able to dummy his way over, then add the conversion.
With Julien Laharrague looking both quick and confident on his debut at full-back, Yannick Nyanga athletically omnipresent whenever they went forward, Damien Traille transformed from the listless lump seen at Twickenham and Yachvili pulling the strings in the manner of Fabien Galthie, France looked likely to score every time they attacked - and added a second score in the 12 th minute.
Attacking directly from set-piece ball, they struck ruthlessly when Gavin Henson stumbled in the heart of the Welsh defence. Yannick Jauzion straightened the line, Traille carried on and the powerful Aurelien Rougerie drove through a committee of Welsh defenders to touch down on the right.
Wales 's sole comfort was that Yachvili did not convert. And while Mike Ruddock's team had not been able to halt that initial French assault, nor did they crumble, but instead kept their line intact as the Tricolores continued to drive forward inexorably.
At times it was a matter of inches or fingertips, but determined, well-organised resistance confined the French to a single score, a 25 th minute penalty by Yachvili.
And two penalties by Steve Jones in the 21 st and 40 th minutes meant that Wales trailed by only 15-6 at the end of a half that they might easily have finished 30 points down.