Six Nations: George North changes Wales' fortunes
France 6 Wales 16: Rob Howley can smile at last as victory in France ends a run of eight defeats and signals a wave of relief
A dreadful Six Nations Championship match in many ways came with the almighty alleviation from a Welsh viewpoint of a first win over international opposition since last year’s Grand Slam. The flood of relief undammed by George North’s adroit try and Leigh Halfpenny’s clinching kicks in the last 10 minutes brought delighted, not to say slightly stunned, choruses of ‘Hymns and Arias’ to the throats of thousands of followers suddenly glad they had splashed out on their Parisian weekend.
Both teams deployed safety-first tactics of hoofing in the air that in France's case reflected the desperation of not wanting to open a Five/Six Nations Championship with successive defeats for the first time since 1982. But Wales, beaten here on their previous three visits, had an even greater need to force a result. The loss to lreland last week had totted up to a depressing run of eight reverses, six of them in the charge of Warren Gatland's locum, Rob Howley. A smile wreathed Howley's creased features last night.
"To win is an obvious relief, it's been a long time, but I kept telling the players and coaches we hadn't become a bad team overnight," he said. "It has never felt like we were a team losing eight on the bounce."
Twice in the first half Wales had throws to line-outs in great positions deep in the French 22; the first ended with a penalty goal for Halfpenny in front of the posts when France prevented Dan Biggar releasing; the second went west, with Wales's forwards stripped of possession as the maul went to ground. France's driving was tighter and more effective. Their 15th-minute penalty, equalised two minutes later by Halfpenny, was for Wales's front-row going down on the 10-metre line, and Freddie Michalak converted it.
Fumbling hands later in moves prevented the French making significant headway, but Wales's forwards scrambled hard to force those errors.
Francois Trinh-Duc came on at full-back at half-time in a reshuffle forced by Benjamin Fall's injury, but the train-crash rugby continued. Tantalising glimpses of the softer brushstrokes of Michalak and the lithe Wesley Fofana only emphasised the painting-by-numbers drudgery.
James Hook, Wales's enigmatic muse and one of three of their match squad who have deserted the home regions to play for French clubs, was stuck on the bench. Only the toot-toot of the Stade de France's ever-present brass bands interrupted a growing chorus of disgruntled grumbles in the crowd as Halfpenny's penalty for Frenchmen off their feet put Wales 6-3 up, before Michalak's second penalty in the 53rd minute.
Both teams had changed captain due to injury, with France's Pascal Pape hurt in last week's loss to Italy and Wales's Sam Warburton against the Irish. But Ryan Jones and Justin Tipuric grafted endlessly to cover the absence of Dan Lydiate and Warburton; a blow most teams would have felt.
The hard work that had obviously been done on Wales's defence after the first-half nightmare against the Irish was paying off. When scrums were occasionally completed rather than collapsing, France had most of the joy. But as replacements came and went there was no sign of a French breakthrough and Wales's backs finally sensed it was worth opening up in the last quarter, believing rightly that a bit of dash was worth it. In the 72nd minute, having mucked up a banana kick not long before, Biggar cross-kicked to the left, the bounce was kind, and North gathered and piled into the corner, neatly keeping his left foot in play. Halfpenny's excellent conversion was followed by a 45m penalty and France, depleted by back-three injuries and not nearly cutting enough in midfield, had no response.
Next up for both teams are two away trips. Wales go to Rome on 23 February followed by Edinburgh on 9 March to face Italy and Scotland, each of whom, like them, have one Six Nations win. The French, bereft after their three wins last autumn, will go to Twickenham and Dublin with the unpalatable prospect if res-ults stay like this of scooping up their foie gras with a wooden spoon. France's coach, Philippe Saint-Andre, talked of "winning back respect" against England in a fortnight. "That is always a special challenge for the French," Saint-Andre said.
France: Y Huget; W Fofana, M Bastareaud, M Mermoz (F Fritz, 75), B Fall (F Trinh-Duc, 40); F Michalak, M Machenaud (M Parra, 55); Y Forestier (V Debaty, 50), D Szarzewski (B Kayser, 50), N Mas (L Ducalcon, 55), J Suta (R Taofifenua, 65), Y Maestri, F Ouedraogo (D Chouly, 51), L Picamoles, T Dusautoir (capt).
Wales: L Halfpenny; A Cuthbert, J Davies, J Roberts (S Williams, 76), G North; D Biggar, M Phillips (L Williams 70); G Jenkins (P James, 37-40, 59), R Hibbard (K Owens, 55), A Jones (C Mitchell, 76), A Coombs, I Evans (L Reed, 76), R Jones (capt, A Shingler, 76), T Faletau, J Tipuric Referee: G Clancy (Ireland)
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