Inspired by the fastest international debut try in living memory - the Neath hooker Barry Williams crossed almost straight from the kick-off - they led until the final five minutes to give their coach, Kevin Bowring, a valuable springboard from which to launch the latest attempt at a Red Dragon renaissance.
Badly disrupted by first-half injuries - the new captain Nigel Davies and former skipper Ieuan Evans, the most experienced threequarters in the side, failed to make it to the break - the Welsh mounted a rearguard action of immense proportions. It was only when the outstanding Abdel Benazzi and the equally impressive Emile N'Tamack cut loose from distance as the clock ticked down that the home effort finally gave way.
The build-up to the game had been dominated by the question of how seriously the French were willing to take it. The fact that they flew in like away- day trippers yesterday morning and had still not decided whether or not to award caps as their plane touched down in Cardiff suggested that Philippe Saint-Andre's side were about as sold on the idea as the Welsh public, who simply stayed at home.
With the National stadium about a third full, the French looked even less interested than the grapevine had suggested as Wales opened up a 14-point lead inside eight minutes. The first home try had a strong flavour of farce about it; Franck Tournaire, who shifted from tight-head prop to loose head when Christian Califano withdrew shortly before the start, was penalised for obstruction from the kick-off and although Neil Jenkins could only hit the bar with his penalty attempt, Fabien Pelous made such a hash of collecting the rebound that Williams was able to smuggle over with his international career still less than a minute old.
If that was a free gift, what happened next was right out of the jewellery box. Wayne Proctor, the Welsh full-back, slid across the greasy turf to field a dangerous rolling ball and quick recycling allowed Leigh Davies to make a powerful diagonal run before unloading to Ieuan Evans, who duly collected his 28th international try. Jenkins added his second conversion from the right touchline.
At that point, the French decided they were interested after all. Olivier Merle lived up to his hit-man billing by decking Christian Loader at a ruck - the Canadian referee, George Gadjovich, settled for a long lecture - and, rather more constructively, Richard Dourthe cut the deficit with an 11th-minute penalty.
There was worse to come for Wales as first Nigel Davies, their captain, and then Evans were carried from the field, the latter with a gashed thigh that resulted from a try-saving tackle on Saint-Andre.
Within three minutes of the former captain's departure, France rubbed it in with a solo try of serious quality from Stephane Glas, who cut inside twice off his left foot before planting the ball under the posts.
If Wales were on the rack, they had clearly been mugging up on their escapology. Gareth Thomas, who had moved to centre in the back division re-shuffle, twisted and turned his way out of some suspect French tackling for a converted try on the half-hour and when Jenkins added two more penalties there was clear blue water between the sides at the break.
Unfortunately for Wales, the water evaporated as France raised the temperature after the break. Benazzi, a stone-cold certainty for any world dream team, led the visiting forwards in a withering assault on a brave but outgunned home pack and with Glas full of tricks in midfield, the tide turned in inevitable fashion.
Dourthe added his second penalty four minutes into the half and another 10 minutes later. Those kicks sandwiched a brilliant try from full-back Jean-Luc Sadourny, who sprinted clear after taking possession of a beautifully timed pass out of the tackle by Glas.
Jenkins kept Welsh hopes alive with two finely struck penalties to another by Dourthe but the dam erupted by Thomas, who tackled his heart out from first minute to last, finally broke in the closing stages.
It was Benazzi who brought France level with just five minutes left on the clock. The No 8 did much of the spade work as France raided down the right touchline and then appeared on the shoulder of N'Tamack to take the scoring pass. N'Tamack was also involved in the clinching score a minute later which was completed exultantly by Glas.
WALES: W Proctor (Llanelli); I Evans (Llanelli), L Davies (Cardiff), N Davies (Llanelli, capt), G Thomas (Bridgend); N Jenkins (Pontypridd), R Howley (Cardiff); C Loader (Swansea), B Williams, J Davies (both Neath), M Voyle (Llanelli), G Llewellyn (Harlequins), K Jones (Ebbw Vale), S Williams (Neath), M Williams (Pontypridd). Replacements: S Hill (Cardiff) for N Davies, 15; A Thomas (Swansea) for Evans (20).
FRANCE: J-L Sadourny (Colomiers); E N'Tamack (Toulon), R Dourthe (Dax), S Glas (Bourgoin), P Saint-Andre (Montferrand); A Penaud (Brive), P Carbonneau (Brive); R Ibanez (Dax), M de Rougemont (Toulon), J-L Jordana (Toulouse), F Tournaire (Narbonne), F Pelous (Dax), O Merle (Montferrand), P Benetton (Agen), A Benazzi (Agen), R Castel (Beziers). Replacements: D Berty (Toulouse) for Saint-Andre (34); T Lievremont (Perpignan) for Benetton (48); P Accoceberry (Begles) for Carbonneau (69).
Referee: G Gadjovich (Canada).Reuse content