Rugby Union: Benetton drives France to championship

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France. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .26

Wales . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .10

SPRINGTIME in Paris can be wonderfully therapeutic but potentially fatal for the rehabilitation of lost rugby causes. There were times in the idyllic conditions here yesterday when France threatened to turn this contest into an exhibition at which the Welsh, with their spirited defence, were at least stall-holders.

But with a 16-3 half-time lead and the opposition at their mercy, France spent too much of the second half attempting to gild the lily when the more direct route might have gained them the points they felt they needed to win the championship outright.

In the end it did not matter, but the chance to show off had been lost. What has distinguished this French side from so many of their recent predecessors is that in Abdel Benazzi and Olivier Roumat, although both are slight and light of brawn and beam by modern standards, they have a genuinely competitive line-out. There are certainly few locks in the world who could match them for athletic grace, and with the magnificent Laurent Cabannes the French dominated the skies.

It was Roumat who paved the way for the finest moment of the championship. He broke clear in his 22 and thundered up to the halfway line where Jean-Francois Tordo was in support. The French captain galloped into the Welsh half before releasing the ball to Aubin Hueber and, although the scrum-half's scoring pass to Philippe Benetton looked at least a yard forward, it was nevertheless an exquisite passage of play. It also provided the game with a satisfying symmetry, Benetton's two tries being the first and last.

France were led with a Napoleonic zeal by Tordo. With the hair of a poodle and the instincts of a rottweiler he also has the speed and ball-handling skills of a back. And given that Franck Mesnel had, at fly-half, the strength and bone-headed commitment of a forward, France are truly all- rounders. In Benetton they had the man of the match.

There were times when France threatened to overpower Wales but, credit to the Welsh, they were unflagging in their efforts not only to stem the almost incessant flow of French assaults, but to make a few of their own. A couple of minutes after Jean-Baptiste Lafond had scored France's second try, a gem of artistry, elan and speed, Nigel Walker scrambled over in the corner for a more prosaic though welcome try which was the first Wales had managed to score here since Jeff Squire's effort 10 years ago. Neil Jenkins converted from the touchline.

For the most part, however, the Welsh backs, operating on meagre rations, were unable to withstand the pressure of French tackling, and Nigel Davies, reputedly with the safest pair of hands in Wales, could not get his fingers and thumbs to work in unison. The Welsh back row, manfully though they strove, lacked the pace off the mark necessary to break the cordon of defenders around the fringes of the set-pieces.

The French, in contrast, through Cabannes, Benetton and Marc Cecillon, were able to generate speed and momentum at source. Once, when Scott Gibbs split the French defence asunder and raced 40 yards up the middle of the field, the move broke down for lack of immediate support.

Most of the French breaks, on the other hand, were closely supported. Their angles of running and the instinctive skill of the inside backs to make room for those outside them were also in a different class, but then they had much more opportunity for practice. Thierry Lacroix, the French goal- kicker, clearly had more practice in his art from the halfway line than closer in, two of his three first-half penalties being struck from around halfway, one inside and one just outside his own half.

France's first try came after a series of beautifully executed and irresistible mauls, with Benetton getting the touchdown. Wales, who were getting to know every blade of grass inside their own 22, did at least break out long enough for Jenkins to kick a penalty.

But France extended their seven-point lead with two further penalties by Lacroix, the third after four minutes of injury time when Gareth Llewellyn had been penalised and severely warned for stamping. The two French tries in the second half were, in themselves, worth the wait throughout what has been a mediocre championship series. They were certainly good enough to win it.

FRANCE: J-B Lafond (Begles); P Saint-Andre (Montferrand), P Sella (Agen), T Lacroix (Dax), P Hontas (Biarritz); F Mesnel (Racing Club), A Hueber (Toulon); L Armary (Lourdes), J-F Tordo (Nice, capt), L Seigne (Merignac), P Benetton, A Benazzi (both Agen), O Roumat (Dax), M Cecillon (Bourgoin), L Cabannes (Racing Club).

WALES: A Clement (Swansea); I Evans (Llanelli, capt), N Davies (Llanelli), S Gibbs (Swansea), N Walker (Cardiff); N Jenkins (Pontypridd), R Moon (Llanelli); R Evans (Llanelli), A Lamerton (Llanelli), H Williams-Jones (South Wales Police), P Davies (Llanelli), G Llewellyn (Neath), M Perego (Llanelli), E Lewis (Llanelli), R Webster (Swansea). Replacements: J Davies (Neath) for R Evans 56 min; P Arnold (Swansea) for Perego 64 min.

Referee: O Doyle (Ireland).

Scores: Lacroix (pen, 8 min 3-0); Benetton / Lafond (try / conv, 21 min, 10-0); Jenkins (pen, 30 min, 10-3); Lacroix (pen, 38 min, 13-3); Lacroix (pen, 44 min, 16-3); Lafond (try, 68 min, 21-3); Walker / Jenkins (try / conv, 70 min, 21- 10); Benetton (try, 80 min, 26-10).

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