A couple of hours later anybody who had witnessed one of the biggest upsets in France since the revolution would have been privileged to say: "I was there." It had to be seen to be believed and even then seemed unreal.
The game was only seconds old when Thomas Castaignede missed a penalty from in front of the Welsh posts; 80 odd minutes and 67 points later, the same player had a penalty from a more acute angle to win the match with what proved to be the last kick. It sailed narrowly wide and Wales had not only won in France for the first time since 1975, they had done so with panache, elan and chic, not to mention cheek, and any other word they can borrow that symbolises the best of French fashion and style. It was a tour de force: exhilarating and breathtaking in its approach and, in terms of entertainment, utterly compelling. William Webb Ellis would have loved this.
"When Neil Jenkins ran with the ball from his own 22 on his first touch I knew this was going to be something different," Pierre Villepreux, France's assistant coach, said: "Our players didn't think he could do that. We kept telling them not to take Wales lightly but deep down I don't think they listened."
You could hardly blame them. France, following nine successive victories in the Five Nations, were going for a third Grand Slam in a row and their 14th win in the last 16 encounters with Wales. Twelve months ago the Welsh were slaughtered 51-0 by France at Wembley, a result that precipitated the departure of the coach, Kevin Bowring, and the courting of the Auckland maestro, Graham Henry. He is, perhaps, New Zealand's loss.
The Five Nations' Championship, underrated if not derided in the southern hemi- sphere, has been an eye-opener for Henry. Accustomed to almost unbroken success, albeit at a very high provincial level, he was hailed as the great redeemer when Wales narrowly lost to the world champions, South Africa, at Wembley last November but was shaken by defeats to Scotland and Ireland in the opening matches of the Five Nations.
Wales were looking at a whitewash in one of the most fraught seasons to bedevil the old game since Webb Ellis decided that a football should be carried rather than kicked. Henry, though, devoid of emotional baggage, is a good traveller and his strategy for the Paris match was a sensational, if nerve-racking, success.
"Playing in that style against that quality of opposition in one of the great stadiums of world sport made it the most satisfying moment of my career," Henry said. "It was a marvellous occasion. The only other time I've been involved in something like that was Natal against Auckland in the first year of the Super 12 and even that pales into insignificance compared to this. I told the players to be bold and keep being bold. Being bold wins rugby matches, being shy doesn't. The guys played real rugby, they kept the ball, instead of handing it over as we had done previously. The players enjoy playing that sort of rugby. They kept the ball in hand, took the opposition on and that's what the game is about. You can almost feel the self-belief coming into the camp. The way we played is the only way to be competitive in world rugby."
His opposite number, Jean-Claude Skrela, concurred. "One could say that we saw the All Blacks playing in red jerseys," Skrela said. "I think the Welsh played rugby as it should be played."
Indeed. For the first time in a long time, all the infighting, the politics and the greed were relegated to the bench, the game was returned to the players and the spectators and the result was a spectacle that will live in the memory.
Jenkins, who, not for the first time, was heavily criticised following the defeat by Ireland at Wembley, made more passes than Casanova. "We were told to run the ball and it helps having players coming off you," the Pontypridd stand-off said. "It gives you options. Why is it such a surprise? I have made breaks before." Not like this he hasn't.
France were fortunate to beat Ireland 10-9 in Dublin.They are clearly not the force of the Grand Slam team of the previous seasons and they were handicapped on Saturday by losing the centre Richard Dourthe in the fourth minute. He was replaced by David Aucagne, who moved to stand-off with Castaignede going to centre.
This instilled Jenkins with even more confidence, a strength thanks to Henry's optimism, with which Wales were already imbued.
In the early stages, the French forwards looked sluggish as the Welsh backs, cleverly employing decoy runners, found more space than at Murrayfield and Wembley combined.
With Emile Ntamack getting a hat-trick, Wales lost the try count 4-3 but in the context of the play it was almost totally irreverent. Wales created, rather than being given, a startling number of chances whereas one of the French tries was gifted by a fumble from Matthew Robinson and another came from a pass that was not so much forward as precocious. Under the circumstances, the Scottish referee Jim Fleming could almost be forgiven for entering into the laissez-faire spirit of the occasion.
From the end of the first half (by which time the score was 18-28 and almost everybody was punch drunk) to the beginning of the second Jenkins missed four penalties in a row. Nevertheless, he kicked five plus two conversions for 19 points compared to Castaignede's 18 with three penalties, two conversions and a try. There is poetic justice in Jenkins beating Castaignede by a point, a point not lost in Wales winning 34-33.
When Castaignede scored France's fourth try in the 74th minute, the Tricolores had recaptured the lead, 33-31, but two minutes later he committed a high tackle on Shane Howarth and Jenkins landed the long-range penalty.
It turned out to be the coup de grace although in injury time France had a great chance of avoiding the unthinkable. Awarded a penalty close to the Welsh line, their indecision was final. Should they kick the ball into the corner, win the line-out and go for the try or should Castaignede kick for goal? They discussed the options at length and the rest, as they say, is hysteria.
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 (Breve), C Califano (Toulouse), R Ibanez (Perpignan, capt), F Tournaire (Toulouse), O Brouzet-Bagles (Bordeaux), F Pelous (Toulouse), P Bennetton (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 (Bezaer) for Bennetton 61.
WALES: S Howarth (Sale), M Robinson (Swansea), M Taylor (Swansea), S Gibbs (Swansea), D James (Pontypridd), N Jenkins (Pontypridd), R Howley (Cardiff, captain), 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 (Cardiff) for Robinson 52, A Lewis (Cardiff) for Rogers 65, D Llewellyn (Ebbw Vale) for Howley 67.
Referee: J Fleming, Scotland.Reuse content