Game, set and match to the Williamses

France 18 - Wales 24
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The Independent Online

The incredible journey continues and the latest leg was the most startling yet. Wales were comprehensively outplayed in the first half, yet staged one of the most memorable comebacks in the history of the Six Nations' championship to sustain their dream of an unlikely Grand Slam.

The incredible journey continues and the latest leg was the most startling yet. Wales were comprehensively outplayed in the first half, yet staged one of the most memorable comebacks in the history of the Six Nations' championship to sustain their dream of an unlikely Grand Slam.

"I'm not taking the credit for this triumph," Mike Ruddock, the Wales coach, said. "The confidence in the squad has been building and building since the World Cup and we now have young players who are becoming world class. Everybody wants to be a part of this team. There is great belief, great self-confidence."

There must be. Wales conceded two early tries to a revitalised French side who were almost unrecognisable from the colourless tricolores who achieved victories over Scotland and England without whetting the appetite.

Had they taken their chances France would have been over the horizon by half-time. Instead Wales responded with an astonishing performance in the second half. The boot, and everything else, was well and truly on the other foot. It was as if the teams had swapped jerseys in the dressing room at the interval.

Wales were 15-6 down at half-time and extremely fortunate to be in with a shout. The nine-point deficit was turned into a three-point lead within the space of five dazzling minutes of the restart. Wales had come out for the second half, having taken the mother of all batterings without their captain Gareth Thomas. The full-back had sustained a broken thumb (last night he was in hospital and is expected to be out of action for six weeks) and the captaincy was passed to the No 8 Michael Owen, with Rhys Williams replacing Thomas.

However, it was the other Williams boys who spearheaded the revival. In the first minute of the second half Stephen Jones had spread-eagled the French defence with an amazing run from deep inside his own half. Shane Williams inflicted further damage down the left flank and his perfectly timed inside pass enabled Martyn Williams to run round close to the posts for Jones to convert.

A few minutes later Shane Williams again created havoc with a brilliant side-stepping run, and when Wales were awarded a penalty close to the French line Martyn Williams tapped the ball to himself and was driven over in the corner.

Wales weren't just 18-15 in front, they were playing a brand of rugby with which the French were not familiar. Was this the same team who had almost been swept off their feet in the first half? It was hard to reconcile the difference in attitude and skill but now it was France's turn to be stretched on the rack.

But for a knock-on by Owen, Wales would have gone on further ahead. France, now thoroughly confused, changed their front row, and more significantly, to the delight of the crowd, brought on Frédéric Michalak in place of Yann Delaigue at stand-off to halt the Welsh revolution.

Michalak duly levelled the scores with a drop goal and at 18-18 the destiny of the match was anybody's guess. However, it wasn't Michalak who was to prove the match-winner but his opposite number Jones. The former Llanelli stand-off, who now earns his daily bread by playing in France, kicked his third penalty in the 65th minute and eight minutes later added a drop goal which gave his side a six-point cushion. Not that they were allowed to sit on it as France stretched the thin red line to breaking point in the dying stages. But break it did not. A converted try would have given France victory and when they had a series of scrums on the Welsh line it seemed for all the world as if they would prevail. "The fact that we withstood that pressure shows the wonderful character of the team," Ruddock said.

It was Jones who had kick-started Wales' challenge with his second penalty on the stroke of half-time. In the dressing room Ruddock lectured his players about the three T's: turnovers, tackles and touch. "I knew we could play a lot better than that," Ruddock said. "And more importantly, so did the players."

A combination of French flair and power and a dreadful catalogue of Wales errors in which they presented their opponents with turnover after turnover, enabled France to establish a dominance that seemed untouchable. Dimitri Yachvili, the scrum-half who had tormented England at Twickenham with six penalties, crossed for the first try after only five minutes, selling a dummy from a ruck and darting through a gap to score close to the posts, his conversion giving his side the best possible start.

Seven minutes later Aurélien Rougerie made his power and strength tell against the diminutive Shane Williams and he crashed over to make it 12-0 in as many minutes and the abacus was out.

Yachvili, with Serge Betsen in close attendance, was virtually running the show, not only with the possession supplied by his pack, which appeared to have control of the scrums, but also from Welsh profligacy. Although Jones kicked the first of the penalties after 22 minutes, Yachvili replied in kind three minutes later to restore the status quo of 12 points.

It should have been more, but then, as Ruddock pointed out: "This is a fortunate time to be the coach of Wales. The points system of modern rugby means that it's never over until it's over." Or indeed until the three T's, the tenors that is, start singing hymns and arias.

Wales face Scotland at Murrayfield in two weeks' time and finally Ireland at the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff a week later, a match which threatens to be a Grand Slam showdown.

In what was the ultimate game of two halves, France, who won the Grand Slam last season, are left to come to terms with the future of their controversial coach, Bernard Laporte.

An indication of what the French rugby supporters think of the coach is that he was subjected to a crescendo of booing when his name was announced before the start whilst everybody else was applauded. The signs are that Laporte will be shown the door.

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