Beforehand Graham Henry, Wales' New Zealand coach, had compared his adopted country's task to the conquest of Mount Everest, adding that it was a New Zealander who first scaled the summit. Few people gave Henry a hope. Not only were Wales bottom of the championship, France had not lost in the Five Nations since their final match of the 1996 campaign, against Wales in Cardiff.
Had Thomas Castaignede kicked a penalty in the last minute here, as he had in the 10-9 defeat of Ireland in Dublin last month, France would have equalled England's record of 10 successive victories.
As it was, Castaignede's kick, from 30 yards but from an acute angle, sailed across the face of the posts. It was the last kick of a fabulous match and the reaction of the Welsh players, and their supporters, could hardly have been less ecstatic than the joie de vivre displayed by the French when they won the football World Cup last summer.
"Superb," Robert Howley, the Wales captain, said. "We were the better side on the day and we were deserved winners." Every word was true. At times Wales looked like a rugby version of Brazil.
They were breathtakingly audacious in their approach and took the game to France in exhilarating style. From virtually every phase of possession and from almost anywhere, they ran the ball in the most convincing fashion at a French defence that brought to mind startled rabbits and headlights.
France may have scored four tries to three, including a hat-trick by their full-back Emile Ntamack, but that is the only statistic from which they can take any satisfaction. In any case, Wales' refreshing sense of adventure could have doubled their number of tries.
Committing the French forwards with a series of drives launched by the back-row and Craig Quinnell, Wales cleverly employed their threequarters to such effect that they tore huge holes in what was beginning to look like the Maginot line. The pace and enterprise of the game meant that as a spectacle it compared with, if not surpassed, the most memorable the Five Nations has had to offer.
It seemed as if there were more breaks in the first 10 minutes alone than in the history of the world snooker championships. After Castaignede had missed a penalty from in front of the posts - how they will rue that one - Neil Jenkins sold a dummy and broke clean through to the French posts. It should have resulted in a try but somehow there was a communication failure between the stand-off and Scott Gibbs.
However, Jenkins kicked Wales ahead in the fourth minute with the first of his five penalties. It was only when a goal-kick was being taken that the action was interrupted. Two minutes later Howley shot through the French defence and from a quickly rucked ball, Colin Charvis adroitly touched down near the posts: 10-0 to Wales.
A minute later Franck Comba sliced through the Welsh midfield leaving Gibbs for dead, and the centre's chip ahead was claimed by that man Ntamack. Castaignede converted and then exchanged penalties with Jenkins to make it 10-13. Dafydd James perhaps should have got over in the left-hand corner and there were further exciting runs from Shane Howarth and Castaignede before the new cap Brett Sinkinson, an effective link in attack, brought off a try- saving tackle on Franck Tournaire. That was before James brilliantly took a Howley high kick out of defence but wasted the opportunity with a pass to Sinkinson instead of going for the line.
Jenkins restored a degree of sanity with a penalty to put Wales six points ahead before Ntamack brilliantly exploited a fumble in defence from Mark Robinson for his second try.
France were still a point adrift but when Castaignede landed a penalty in the 31st minute, the French were ahead for the first time and the Stade de France expected to see the Tricolores move up a gear. Instead, Wales again destabilised the French with a smart try from James following excellent work from Scott Quinnell, Mark Taylor and Jenkins: 18-21.
What happened next confirmed the impression that this was, perhaps, all a dream. From the kick-off, Scott Quinnell made ground into the heart of the French forwards and when the ball was recycled to the left, Howarth and James made huge breaks which took play deep into the French 22. Howley darted through another gap and when he realised he wouldn't make the line, he threw out a perfect pass to Craig Quinnell who gratefully accepted it on the right wing before going over unopposed. Jenkins' conversion made it 18-28 and Wales had not scored this many points against France since 1914. And it was only half-time.
Wales got the expected backlash after the interval. After exchanging passes with the hooker Raphael Ibanez, one of which looked very forward, Ntamack eluded Robinson to score his third try and the conversion cut Wales' lead to three points. Wales, though, were still fighting their corner and in the space of six minutes Jenkins failed with three penalty attempts, one of which hit an upright.
When Castaignede kicked a penalty after 60 minutes, France had drawn level at 28-28 and the white-knuckle ride got scarier. Wales might have got another try but for Jenkins dropping a blind-side pass from Howley yards from the French line. However, the stand-off more than made amends. First he banged over another penalty in the 70th minute and finally got the winning kick four minutes from time. In between, Castaignede had scored a magnificent try in the 74th minute after a momentous and sustained attack: 33-31.
Castaignede missed the conversion and then, of course, the late penalty that would have brought France their 14th win over Wales from the last 16 encounters. C'est la vie, as they would say in Pontypridd.
France: E Ntamack (Toulouse); P Bernat-Salles (Biarritz), R Dourthe (Stade Francais), F Comba (Stade Francais), T Lombard (Stade Francais); T Castaignede (Castres), P Carbonneau (Brive); C Califano (Toulouse), R Ibanez (Perpignan, capt), F Tournaire (Toulouse), O Brouzet (Begles-Bordeaux), F Pelous (Toulouse), P Benetton (Agen), T Lievremont (Perpignan), M Raynaud (Narbonne). Replacements: D Aucagne (Pau) for Dourthe 4, X Garbajosa (Toulouse) for Bernat-Salles 40, S Marconnet (Stade Francais) for Tournaire 40, R Castel (Bezier) for Benetton 61.
Wales: S Howarth (Sale); M Robinson (Swansea), M Taylor (Swansea), S Gibbs (Swansea), D James (Pontypridd); N Jenkins (Pontypridd), R Howley (Cardiff, capt); P Rogers (London Irish), G Jenkins (Swansea), B Evans (Swansea), C Quinnell (Richmond), C Wyatt (Llanelli), C Charvis (Swansea), S Quinnell (Llanelli), B Sinkinson (Neath). Replacements: G Thomas for Robinson 52, A Lewis (Cardiff) for Rogers 65, D Llewellyn (Ebbw Vale) for Howley 67.
Referee: J Fleming (Scotland).Reuse content