NEW ZEALAND have Christian Cullen and the South Africans have prop forwards the size of mountain ranges, but France possess the future. If Thomas Castaignede is not the most exquisitely gifted outside-half to grace this rugged and often brutal game since the great Mark Ella wove his magic for the Wallabies a decade and more ago, then the Tricolores are not worthy Grand Slam champions of Europe.
Which of course they are, for not only did they slaughter Wales in front of 70,000 astonished spectators at Wembley yesterday, they reduced them to dust. Their attacks, wave upon wave of them, were of a pace and quality way beyond anything seen north of the Equator since Ella masterminded Australia's own Grand Slam of the home nations in 1984. And just to rub it in, their defence was every bit as good. Try as they might, the Welsh found scoring entirely beyond them.
Lawrence Dallaglio and his fellow English Triple Crowners would not have found it particularly difficult to beg, borrow or steal some tickets for the sell-out Five Nations finale, but they settled instead for a late breakfast and a long soak with the Sunday papers. They must have known something; Wales were so limited in thought and ponderous in execution that France barely needed to get out of bed to claim the first back-to- back Slam in their history.
Certainly, the Tricolores had no pressing need to be even remotely grand in order to slam the living daylights out of Rob Howley's rag-tag band of damp squib Dragons. France waited 58 years for their first full house in 1968 and sweated rivers of blood to prevail over the mightiest of Welsh sides to repeat the feat in 1977, but Raphael Ibanez and his countrymen will head back across the Channel today wondering why their predecessors found these things quite so difficult.
Thankfully, though, they took a charitable view of the occasion and decided that their travelling supporters deserved a show. And what a show they came up with; a command performance, a golden globe spectacle and a glitzy Oscar ceremony rolled into one. If Ibanez hosted the production - this solitary sage turned man of the people has captaincy skills that mark him out as a Lucian Mias for the new millennium - it was Castaignede who topped the bill to sensational effect.
He had the Welsh midfield on toast so often that Neil Jenkins, Leigh Davies and Neil Boobyer soon resembled nothing more than a charred baguette. Allan Bateman might conceivably have spiked one or two of the guns in the bottle-blond bombshell's armoury and Scott Gibbs would have backed himself to deliver at least one rib-rattler on his whippet-like frame, even if it meant sneaking into the French dressing-room and catching the little blighter in the shower. But Bateman and Gibbs, ruled out by misfortune and injury, were nowhere to be seen.
Come to think of it, neither were Davies and Boobyer. Time and again Castaignede tugged Jenkins out of position with a show of the ball before sending Stephane Glas, another wizard at the height of his trickery, spearing between the Welsh centres and away into clear blue water. Given the wreckage being caused close to the breakdowns, the finishing was almost too easy for the likes of Jean-Luc Sadourny and Xavier Garbajosa.
France were up and running inside two minutes, in the pound seats after 12 and out of sight by the half-hour mark. Sadourny claimed the first of seven mesmeric tries before the Welsh had laid a hand on the ball, gliding up on the collective shoulder of the Castaignede-Glas axis to complete the score unmolested. He claimed his second when Kevin Morgan missed his hit on Philippe Bernat-Salles and when Thomas Lievremont, who with Olivier Magne was the pick of the French forwards, slipped away from Rob Appleyard to score direct from a five-metre scrum, it was all over for Wales bar the torment of another 54 morale-sapping minutes.
The home side could nothing even passably well, let alone right. When Magne, who possesses a temperamental streak to match the molten heat of his back-row play, drove his head into the face of Colin Charvis during an early bout of handbag-swinging, it was Charvis who received the yellow card from a strangely pedantic Peter Marshall. Just for good measure, the Australian official dished one out to Stuart Davies at the same time, although no one could quite work out why.
Seventeen points clear at the end of the first 20 minutes, the French withdrew into themselves just slightly and sucked in some much-needed north London oxygen. Then they were off again, Ibanez bursting upfield to break open the Welsh defence anew and give Christophe Lamaison the chance to send Glas stretching away to the line.
The second half would be no different; if anything, Castaignede was even more devastating from ever greater distances. One withering break from his own 22 should have given Bernat-Salles his fourth try in as many tournament matches, but Marshall produced the most ludicrous decision of the season to penalise the stand-off for diving on his own kick-through.
Some respite. Garbajosa followed Glas through a gaping midfield hole to grab the first of his two tries and there was another for Fabien Galthie, the replacement scrum-half.
Thirteen minutes from time,the French management decided that David Aucagne, another outstandingly creative stand-off, deserved a few moments in the sun, so Castaignede's peroxide locks were suddenly to be seen heading for the bench. Suffice to say that even sitting down, he would have been too damned slippery for Wales.
WALES: K Morgan (Pontypridd); W Proctor (Llanelli), N Boobyer (Llanelli), L Davies (Cardiff), G Thomas (Cardiff); N Jenkins (Pontypridd), R Howley (Cardiff, capt); A Lewis (Cardiff), G Jenkins (Swansea), D Young (Cardiff), M Voyle (Llanelli), A Moore (Swansea), R Appleyard (Swansea), S Davies (Swansea), C Charvis (Swansea). Replacements: L Mustoe (Cardiff) for Lewis, 55; J Humphreys (Cardiff) for Jenkins, 55; D James (Pontypridd) for Boobyer, 56; K Jones (Ebbw Vale) for Appleyard, 65.
FRANCE: J-L Sadourny (Colomiers); P Bernat-Salles (Pau), C Lamaison (Brive), S Glas (Bourgoin), X Garbajosa (Toulouse); T Castaignede (Castres), P Carbonneau (Brive); C Califano (Toulouse), R Ibanez (Dax, capt), F Tournaire (Toulouse), O Brouzet (Belges-Bordeaux), F Pelous (Toulouse), M Lievremont (Stade Francais), T Lievremont (Perpignan), O Magne (Brive). Replacements: P Benetton (Agen) for T Lievremont, 63; D Aucagne (Pau) for Castaignede, 67; C Soulette (Beziers) for Califano, 67; F Galthie (Colomiers) for Carbonneau, 67; M dal Maso (Agen) for Ibanez, 71; T Cleda (Pau) for Brouzet, 77; J- M Aue (Castres) for Lamaison, 77.
Referee: P Marshall (Australia).
Final Five Nations table
P W D L F A Pts
France 4 4 0 0 144 49 8
England 4 3 0 1 146 87 6
Wales 4 2 0 2 75 145 4
Scotland 4 1 0 3 66 120 2
Ireland 4 0 0 4 70 100 0Reuse content