France hang on to defeat Wales
March 7, 2004
Jean-Baptiste Ellisalde beats Gareth Thomas to score
© Getty Images
France moved to the top of the RBS Six Nations table after a stop-start display, dragged from the mire by a superior scrum and a 24-points haul from man-of-the-match Jean Baptiste Elissalde, saw them 29-22 victors in front of 73,359 spectators in Cardiff.
Just as French coach Bernard Laporte chewed his afternoon away in his halfway house at the Millennium stadium, so too did his scrum half Elissalde, on the ground before him. The little number 9 may not measure up to former number 9 petit general Fabien Galthie yet, but five penalties, two conversions and a 57th minute breakaway try from the Toulousain was the cutting difference between the sides.
Wales relied on the boot of out half Stephen Jones, playing to rigid percentages, with their open field running saved for the final five minutes when replacement back row Martyn Williams finally breached the visitors' line for a deserved Dragons try.
Both sides play a cagey opening with any penalty awarded by Australian referee Stuart Dickinson, invariably pumped between the sticks, with Jones' 50-metre monster levelling at 3-3 on 10 minutes.
This was a more rounded effort from the Welsh front five and the gangly stride of lock Michael Owen was to the fore in the loose. Elissalde knocked his second penalty over to put France 6-3 up, but Jones added three further kicks, the second taking him clear of Paul Thorburn as Wales' second highest all time points scorer, on 17, 22 and 25 minutes.
His efforts proved in vain however as France ended the half in front, 13-12 thanks to the final passage of play. Out half Frederick Michalak proved pivotal in the move, as he switched the point of play from left to right onto the blindside, feeding Vincent Clerc who evaded Gareth Cooper's challenge and put back row Imanol Harinordoquy over in the right corner.
Elissalde crept the conversion over and tagged on two early penalties in the second half on 45 and 46 minutes as complacency crept into the Welsh game, especially at the breakdown and in the scrums.
Jones' fifth penalty pulled them back into contention, but from an attacking platform for the home side, Biarritz flanker Serge Betsen disrupted as only he can, pouncing on the loose possession to send his scrum half up the right wing, ball in hand, and scampering over for the try.
Another excellent conversion from the scrum half capped a wonderful display, but before the game was out, he was unfortunately taken off with a hamstring injury.
Credit to Wales, they mounted a concerted fight back, springing all of their substitutes onto the field in the final half hour, with Jones linking with replacement number 9 Ceri Sweeney to see Williams touch down under the French posts.
The Dragons could not get close to the French line in the final seconds, with Owen's dart into the 22' proving their best attack, and they now go to Twickenham in two weeks' time in search of their second win of the championship.