Jones converts spirited Wales to triumphant vision of new golden epoch

France 18 - Wales 24
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The Independent Online

The sense of shock around the stadium was profound. On the faces of French and Welsh players, management and supporters, there was disbelief. Then the truth hit everyone. Despair distorted the French demeanour. Delirious delight and relief engulfed Wales.

The impossible had happened. The Red Dragons had pulled off one of the more sensational reversals in the history of the championship.

After the bitter realisation had sunk in, the France coach Bernard Laporte gave an old cliché new life when he said: "There was a French half and there was a Welsh half." And with a bright finish to the championship beckoning, Laporte's opposite number Mike Ruddock insisted that the focus was now on the next game. Then the one after that.

So two words matter to Wales right now - Scotland and Ireland. They will not countenance mention of the other two - Grand and Slam. It is the Scots and the Irish who now stand between Wales and that most coveted of ethereal prizes, the Slam, and that is where their focus now lies.

But the Welsh camp were still happy to talk about the immediate past and glorious, unthinkable victory over France, which has set up the chance of the unmentionable. Not even the loss of their inspirational leader Gareth Thomas, who is out of the Six Nations with a broken thumb, could dampen spirits.

Stephen Jones, the chief architect of the win with a superb all-round performance at outside-half, reckoned the joy he felt surpassed that of putting one over on the old enemy, saying: "This means more to me than the win over England." And little wonder. Wales had just visited the home of one of the game's more illustrious sides and had beaten them in their own backyard. "Two years ago," Jones continued, "we lost every game in the Six Nations. Tonight we can die proud Welshmen."

There was no prouder Welshman than Ruddock, who sang the praises of Jones's contribution. "I thought Stephen was awesome - all the players were awesome - but his goal-kicking kept us in the game when we were going through that difficult period."

It was a penalty on the stroke of half-time by Jones which kept Wales in touch after a first half in which France had made all the running and established a reasonable lead with two well-taken tries.

"It is one of the most surreal games I have ever played in," said Martyn Williams, who scored Wales' two tries. "For the first 40 minutes we just couldn't get near them. So it was really important to get that score just before half-time." It closed the gap to nine points and shook the French to the core. Laporte was incredulous at those opening 40 minutes. "I find it unbelievable that in the first half we only scored two tries."

At the interval, two things happened. First Wales lost their captain, Thomas, and then a few words were said by Ruddock. Wales suddenly remembered how their coach had wanted them to approach the first 20 minutes of the match - by being bold and adventurous, taking the game to the French.

So, a little bit late, two minutes into the second half to be precise, they decided to obey orders. A searing break by Stephen Jones ended deep in the French half, the ball reached Shane Williams and his twinkle toes dazzled the opposition before he offloaded a scoring pass to Martyn Williams.

Four minutes later, France were trailing. Shane Williams put in a devastating break and Les Bleus conceded a penalty. The quick-witted Martyn Williams took the tap and touched down for his second try.

Frédéric Michalak, who had come in to replace Yann Delaigue, levelled matters with a drop goal but Wales were unstoppable. Stephen Jones landed his third penalty then stretched Wales' lead with a perfectly struck drop goal.

Even so it was not a given. A lot of time remained, seven more minutes on the referee's watch, and France threw everything into their quest for victory. Jones added: "I was not confident that we could hold on because the French are superb when they are looking to play, and we saw some brilliant rugby today." So did Welsh fans. Like it or not, the championship and a Grand Slam now beckon.

Man of the match: Martyn Williams, not just for his tries, but also his vision and nous.

Moment of the match: After half-time, when Stephen Jones made a breakthrough into French territory that ultimately took Wales into the lead.

FRANCE: J Laharrague (Brive); A Rougerie (Clermont Auvergne), Y Jauzion (Toulouse), D Traille (Biarritz), C Dominici (Stade Français); Y Delaigue (Castres), D Yachvili (Biarritz); S Marconnet (Stade Français), S Bruno (Sale), N Mas (Perpignan), F Pelous (Toulouse, capt), J Thion, S Betsen (both Biarritz), Y Nyanga (Béziers), J Bonnaire (Bourgoin). Replacements: W Servat (Toulouse) for Bruno, h-t ; O Milloud (Bourgoin) for Mas, 50; G Lamboley (Toulouse) for Thion, 76 ; I Harinordoquy (Biarritz) for Bonnaire, 61; F Michalak (Toulouse) for Delaigue, 52; J-P Grandclaude (Perpignan) for Traille, 47.

WALES: G Thomas (Toulouse; capt); K Morgan (Newport-Gwent Dragons), T Shanklin (Cardiff), G Henson, S Williams (both Neath-Swansea Ospreys); S Jones (Clermont Auvergne), D Peel (Llanelli); G Jenkins (Cardiff), M Davies (Gloucester), A Jones, B Cockbain (both Neath-Swansea Ospreys), R Sidoli (Cardiff); R Jones (Neath-Swansea Ospreys), M Williams (Cardiff), M Owen (Newport-Gwent Dragons). Replacements: R McBryde (Llanelli) for Davies, 66 ; J Yapp (Cardiff) for A Jones, 69; J Thomas (Neath-Swansea Ospreys) for R Jones, 80+1; G Cooper (Newport-Gwent Dragons) for Peel, 69; C Sweeney (Newport-Gwent Dragons) Morgan, 53-61; R Williams (Cardiff) for G Thomas, h-t.

Referee: P Honiss (New Zealand)