Laharrague the 'crazy' a glimmer for France

Click to follow

The news is not all bleak for France. A second successive Grand Slam has eluded them and the RBS Six Nations' Championship looks a little out of reach, but this was at least a vastly improved French performance, with plenty of flashes of the much-missed brilliant back play that had been their trademark for so long before being consigned to the shadows under the austere generalship of coach Bernard Laporte.

The news is not all bleak for France. A second successive Grand Slam has eluded them and the RBS Six Nations' Championship looks a little out of reach, but this was at least a vastly improved French performance, with plenty of flashes of the much-missed brilliant back play that had been their trademark for so long before being consigned to the shadows under the austere generalship of coach Bernard Laporte.

But they did creak a bit in defence, especially when Wales staged their stunning second-half fightback. The French had been fine when they were going forward, but when the heat was on them they looked extremely brittle, as fragile indeed as had Wales in the opening half.

If the French had needed any motivation before the kick-off they had been given it in spades. The criticism being fired at them by everyone in France for their one-dimensional approach thus far was stick enough, but a deeply emotional element was added on their arrival at the Stade de France yesterday.

On one wall of the French dressing room was pasted a huge picture of an icon of the Gallic game, an image of the man the English long ago dubbed "Monsieur Rugby", Jean Prat, winner of 51 caps between 1945-55 and a veritable post-War legend as player and coach in France.

Prat is credited with being one of the architects of the exhilarating style of play that became known as "French flair". If ever there was an inspired choice to lift Les Bleus that was possibly it.

It was a new face on the French block, Julien Laharrague, as well as a couple of returnees, Aurélien Rougerie and Yannick Jauzion who added pace and punch to the backs as well as a big dollop of excitement for the thrill-starved France fans. Laharrague, a self-confessed "crazy" player, who has been making a habit of scoring tries from 60, 70 and 80 metres out for his club Brive, had a couple of wonderful runs early on.

His hair style echoes that of New Zealand's Doug Howlett (or Adam Jones the Wales tight-head prop), but his pace is not quite up to Howlett's, and since this was his debut, his strike rate cannot be compared with that of the All Black, but if he continues in the same vein tries will almost certainly come.

Indeed, it was his pass which freed up Rougerie in the 12th minute for France's second try, and he put in some telling breaks either side of that assist as well.

On one break, late in the first half, Laharrague found himself caught in a crunching two man tackle. The ball flew out of his grasp, yet the Brive full-back was able, miraculously, to regather the ball and get it out to scrum-half Dimitri Yachvili, who got the rest of his backs going against straight away, stretching the Welsh defence even further.

But Laharrague was not alone in tormenting the Welsh. At that time, the French backs as a unit were like a set of kitchen knives, boning, filleting, cutting and slicing their way through the Welsh at will. They also appeared to target the Wales left wing, policed by Shane Williams, who has looked so sharp of late in attack. The numerous forays down the French right by the 6ft 4in, 15 1/2st Rougerie took their toll on the diminutive Williams.

But the 5ft 9in Williams got his revenge after the interval with a series of runs that featured mesmerising footwork, which left the French defenders floundering and giving their opponents acres of space and, crucially, a string of penalties.

It stretched the French, tested their resolve and found them ultimately wanting as they tried desperately to work their way back into the Welsh half. Although they eventually did so and squared things through replacement outside half Frédéric Michalak's drop goal, they were soon under the cosh again and still showing signs of fumbling panic when the red shirts pressed up hard and the immediate result was a long-range penalty by Stephen Jones to wrest back the lead once more.

Comments