Six Nations: Joy and relief as Wales' losing run ends in tears against France
Crying Roberts pays tribute to passion of champions as they keep one hand on trophy
It said it all that Wales' Jamie Roberts, after earning his 50th cap, broke down in tears of joy during a post-match TV interview in Paris. George North's quality try and Leigh Halfpenny's brilliant conversion and penalty had turned a 6-6 stalemate into a long overdue and very welcome 16-6 Wales win against France.
"We have come in for a lot of stick over the last year, a lot of it warranted," Roberts said. "The passion we showed in the shirt, especially in defence, was fantastic."
The win has brought an optimism which would have looked barmy just a few days ago. "We haven't been far off," said the Wales scrum-half Mike Phillips of the eight straight international reverses before this, thinking perhaps of last-minute calamities against Australia more than the defeats by Samoa and Argentina. "Who knows what can happen now? Anybody can beat anybody [in the Six Nations]. We're still the champions and we'll keep going to the end."
Next up for Wales, who lost 30-22 at home to Ireland in their Six Nations opener, are away trips to Italy and Scotland, followed by a potentially tumultuous conclusion against England in Cardiff. There was a sense when they began to run the ball in the final quarter in Paris that if they had done so earlier the win might have been more clear-cut. But that was probably a fallacy. Better for the Welsh to play rope-a-dope and allow the French to punch themselves out.
"You could see it in the French body language in the second half," said Phillips, who for a year and a half has played in France's Top 14 league for Bayonne. "They were blowing, they had their hands on their knees. For Wales, on the back of all the losses, it's up there as one of the biggest wins we've had."
That was quite a statement from a man with 74 caps and Grand Slams in 2008 and 2012 behind him. But the rugby played on a poor Stade de France pitch screamed of winning before everything. "It's a tough world, professional rugby," said Phillips. "One minute you're a hero, the next minute you're rubbish. We're still playing some good stuff – the ball-in-play time is high. But I think we were missing the blood and guts."
France's half-cocked idea of Freddy Michalak muddling through at fly-half without the licence to go wandering did not worry Wales' umbrella defence – the assistant coach Shaun Edwards reminded us his team have kept France try-less in the last three meetings – and the obvious threat of the 123kg (19st) centre Mathieu Bastareaud was not one France exploited, lacking enough clever offloads or changes of running angle to finish them off.
It left Wales with the gradual realisation they could halt the depressing run of losses to Australia – three Tests on tour last summer – Argentina, Samoa, New Zealand, Australia again and Ireland. The careworn expression of the interim coach, Rob Howley, in charge while Warren Gatland is on sabbatical with the Lions, turned to smiles. "The relief and confidence is so important and we can take that now to Italy," said Howley, who hailed the defensive work of the back row Justin Tipuric, Ryan Jones and Toby Faletau, leaving a dilemma if captain Sam Warburton is fit to return in Rome.
For Wales to retain their Six Nations title they will surely need to graft some variety on to Dan Biggar's punts downfield. The Ospreys fly-half had banana-kicked to nowhere shortly before his better cross-field effort in the 72nd minute bounced up for North to dive into the left corner. It was the 20-year-old North's 12th Wales try but only his third in 16 Tests. Cue more emotion: BBC Wales last night identified the fan who invaded the pitch to hug North as his father, Dave.
The roaming raids of Alex Cuthbert drew praise from a one-time prince of the French midfield, Denis Charvet. "Wales are a proper team, they play and fight for each other," said Charvet, now an analyst for TV and radio. "France's collective spirit is not there."
France: Penalties Michalak 2.
Wales: Try North; Conversion Halfpenny; Penalties Halfpenny 3.
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), T Dusautoir (capt), L Picamoles. 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), J Tipuric, T Faletau.
Referee G Clancy (Ireland).
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