Rugby Union: Leflamand douses the Dragons' fire

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The Independent Online
France 27 Wales 22

Tries: Merle 4, Leflamand 35 Tries: G Thomas 16,

Venditti 36, Bateman 51, Howley 68

Leflamand 66

Pens: Aucagne 40 Pens: Jenkins 20,

Cons: Dourthe 4, Cons: Jenkins 16, 51

Aucagne 66 Half-time: 20-10

They Have ignition, now all of Wales awaits the Dragons' lift- off. After a stirring match to which Wales contributed immensely, a nation can be proud of its rugby players once more. They showed pride, passion and that most Celtic of qualities, hwyl, something which has been lacking for far too long.

The glory days are still not quite within sight, and the record of Wales not having won in Parc des Princes since 1975 will stay on their backs until 1999, but by then their coach Kevin Bowring could well have turned the corner with his charges.

Terry Cobner, Wales's director of rugby and a member of that team of 22 years ago, was unstinting in his praise. "I think that must rank with the best Welsh performances in the Parc des Princes. I can't remember any Welsh team being as creative."

France had their share of luck and, having suffered so many injuries prior to the match, perhaps they deserved it. Already missing six first- choice players, Richard Dourthe was forced to leave the field after 23 minutes with a suspected dislocated shoulder and is doubtful for the game against England at Twickenham on Saturday week. Half an hour later, the lock Hugues Miorin also had to be replaced.

France had not been doing well in the line-out, and with Miorin's departure that aspect of their game disintegrated, with Gareth Llewellyn winning opposition ball at will. The French backs were fast and dangerous on paper; in practice they were also loose. But they were not alone in committing basic handling errors. As against Ireland, the Welsh revealed a propensity for careless handling.

But they had their moments. That they fell in the end could be put down as much to cruel fortune as anything else. The full-back Neil Jenkins must be wondering what he has to do to get a bounce to go his way. Against Ireland he was left totally bereft when a high ball rebounded off padding around a post and the Irish scored. Yesterday a wicked bounce after Christophe Lamaison's attempted drop goal left him stranded, and resulted in a second try for the right wing Laurent Leflamand.

The Welsh outside-half Arwel Thomas launched his backs in countless moves, and their option-taking was almost flawless. However, Wales's failure to turn pressure into more points cost them the game and leaves them in danger of the wooden spoon if they fail to beat England in a month's time in Cardiff.

"We're disappointed," the Welsh captain Jonathan Humphreys said. "But England is always a special occasion and even more so when it is the last Five Nations match. There's an amazing self-belief in this side and if we put together another passionate performance like this, we are capable of winning that match, and winning it well."

Welsh character was tested early when Dourthe darted into the danger area after only 60 seconds. Having seen off that threat, Wales were then confronted by a more serious one when France called on bigger guns. And they don't come much bigger than the 20st, 6ft 5in lock Olivier Merle. He rumbled down the left following a tap penalty and parked his gargantuan frame over the line in the fourth minute for the first of his side's four tries.

But Wales came back, firstly with a try by Gareth Thomas, who had done the hard work with a dash and a chip ahead to take his team up to the French line. He then accepted scrum-half Rob Howley's pass to crash over. Jenkins added the conversion and then nosed Wales in front with a penalty, at which point Dourthe left the fray.

France then struck two blows in two minutes. Leflamand scored his first try, and that was followed by another from the left wing David Venditti to give France a half-time cushion of 10 points. It should have been enough but Wales ensured they needed more. A long pass from Arwel Thomas to his namesake Gareth opened up the French on the right. Ieuan Evans took it on, then slipped a pass to the centre Allan Bateman, who shrugged off tacklers to score. With Jenkins' conversion, the Dragons were breathing fire again. That kick took Jenkins to 534 points in internationals and into fourth place in the world points-scoring table behind Michael Lynagh (911), Gavin Hastings (730) and Grant Fox (645).

Robert Howley's try 12 minutes from time raised Welsh hopes but it was all in vain. France by then had slipped further away again courtesy of that lucky bounce. Their record remains, the Grand Slam is still on and their casualties should have time to recover before tackling England. But the good news is Wales are back.

France: J-L Sadourny (Colomiers); L Leflamand (Bourgoin), R Dourthe (Dax), S Glas (Bourgoin), D Venditti; C Lamaison, P Carbonneau (all Brive); J- L Jordana (Toulouse), M Dal Maso (Agen), C Califano, H Miorin (both Toulouse), O Merle (Montferrand), R Castel (Beziers), F Pelous (Dax), A Benazzi (Agen, capt). Replacements: D Aucagne (Pau) for Dourthe, 23; O Magne (Dax) for Miorin, 54.

Wales: N Jenkins (Pontypridd); I Evans (Llanelli), A Bateman (Richmond), S Gibbs (Swansea), G Thomas (Bridgend); A Thomas, (Swansea), R Howley (Cardiff); C Loader (Swansea), J Humphreys (capt), D Young (both Cardiff), G Llewellyn (Harlequins), M Rowley (Pontypridd), S Williams (Neath), S Quinnell (Richmond), C Charvis (Swansea). Replacement: J Davies (Cardiff) for Evans, 58.

Referee: P Marshall (Australia).