Wales 27 France 6 match report: George North and Sam Warburton revive title hopes as Wales show their mettle against France
Aided to an extent by a monumentally ponderous France, whose win over England at the start of this Six Nations looks ever more like a lucky break, Wales retained a faint hope of retaining the champions’ title, though points difference is currently against them. Two of their talismanic stars, George North and Sam Warburton, came up trumps with a try in each half on a madcap evening that kept a near capacity Cardiff crowd entertained if at times just a little baffled.
Wales’s three points in the morale-sapping loss to Ireland a fortnight ago was their lowest Six Nations score since 2000. But they soon got motoring in an eventful opening quarter that ended with the back-to-back champions of 2012 and 2013 ahead 14-3.
Perhaps it was a kick up the backside to have lost their second-row Alun Wyn Jones to a foot infection that flared up on Thursday evening. Though the position appears temporarily cursed – Wales have had Bradley Davies, Ryan Jones, Ian Evans and Luke Charteris variously injured or suspended since November – the effect appeared minimal.
Leigh Halfpenny kicked them into a third-minute lead – a nerve-settler nudged confidently from just inside the French half – before the first try arrived from a line-out.
Tit-for-tat kicking led to Hugo Bonneval finding touch 40 metres or so from the French goal-line. In an echo of a try by the injured Scott Williams against Italy here in the win with which Wales kicked off this Six Nations, the tap-down from Taulupe Faletau was not ideal for Rhys Webb. But Jamie Roberts smashed into the French defence on the gainline and, outside him, George North – starting at centre in the absence of Williams and Jon Davies – worked a clever inside pass to Liam Williams before Halfpenny chipped long down the left. Brice Dulin scrambled to cover but, in a comic pratfall, the full-back was clattered on the head by his team-mate and lost the ball, allowing North to dot down his 16th try in 38 Tests.
Halfpenny missed the conversion, but he and Jean-Marc Doussain popped over a penalty each before the French scrum-half missed a 30-metre sitter in the 24th minute. France also had a possible try chalked off for a knock-on in the tackle by their captain, Pascal Papé.
The scrums were sliding around on an unpredictable pitch but Halfpenny’s footing remained hearteningly certain for Wales. The diminutive full-back with the Schwarzenegger biceps jabbed over two more penalties before half-time, following one by Jules Plisson who had taken over the tee for France, and Wales led 20-6.
France looked one-paced on the move, lacking a trick; it comes to something when the most eye-catching French ball-carrier was a prop, Nicolas Mas. With Webb distributing snappily and Warburton fitter than earlier in the Championship, there was more time and space for Rhys Priestland at fly-half.
But the referee Alain Rolland had been on the case of both packs for not scrummaging properly and he sent Mas and the otherwise energetic Gethin Jenkins to the sin-bin after a collapse in the 51st minute. Cue fun and games on a Wales put-in, with Liam Williams called from the wing to the blindside flank, effectively enough as the ball was cleared. The French, who had just mucked up a possible try when Mathieu Bastareaud was cut down by Priestland, were not laughing, though. The glare given by Papé to Bonneval when the wing completely misread a pass by the skipper would have frozen the breath of a dragon.
Plisson had missed a long-range penalty on 47 minutes; ditto Halfpenny after 59. Then came Wales’s coruscating second try. A ruck offence earned Louis Picamoles a yellow card, Wales kicked for a line-out in the French 22 and with quick ball from Warburton at the tail and off the top, Roberts smashed through midfield. The ruck was quick and Warburton doubled round to dive for the line, stretching to make the crucial grounding.
Together with Halfpenny’s conversion Wales were out of sight, result-wise, with 15 minutes still to play, and though improving their points difference for the overall title race would have been worth keeping the foot down for, the scoring was done.
Scorers - Wales: Tries: North, Warburton; Conversion: Halfpenny; Penalties: Halfpenny (5). France - Penalties: Doussain, Plisson.
Referee: A Rolland (Ireland).
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