Laporte's champions creep over finish line

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The Independent Online

In the bowels of a long deserted Millennium Stadium on Saturday night, just at the bottom of some stairs the caterers like to use when putting the bins out, Fabien Pelous was finally presented with the Six Nations trophy. It was hardly an ending fitting to a quite marvellous day's sport, but Les Bleus were simply relieved to have won their third title in five years.

In fact, that was the pervading emotion throughout the Welsh capital as the pubs rocked to the tunes of "Calon Lan" and "La Marseillaise", not to mention the odd strain of "The Fields of Athenry"; relief from the visitors that they had just survived such a fright and relief on the home front that their boys had at last performed in a manner befitting the out-going champions.

But mainly there was relief in Wales that a tournament blighted by "Ruddockgate" and all its ramifications was over. Perhaps now they can look forward instead of back.

France certainly were, with Bernard Laporte gazing at his stars and somehow managing to foresee World Cup glory in Paris next year. "We were under the cosh for quite a lot of the match, just as we were after losing our first game of the Championship [to Scotland]," the coach said. "But like then, we didn't panic and although the boat rocked, no-one jumped ship and we all stayed together. Why, it's probably better for our World Cup prospects to have created such a spirit than to have dawdled to a Grand Slam."

It was certainly an interesting theory, but although France went over twice here to set a new national record for tries scored in a championship with 18 this was anything but a vintage performance, as indeed it has been anything but a vintage Six Nations. France were bafflingly flat as Wales fizzed all around them and it is unarguable that they could and should have been beaten. It was reflected in the mood in the Welsh base camp yesterday, where they were not sure whether to laugh or cry - "pleased to be disappointed" seemed to sum it up perfectly.

"I was chuffed with my own performance but gutted at the result," said Mike Phillips and he had every right to be after a first Six Nations start that ranks right up there with the very best of them. Jo Maso, the French team manager, might have had his tongue pressing cheek when answering "yes, some chap called Gareth Edwards a few years ago" to a question about whether a Welsh scrum-half had ever caused so many problems - but it was not pressing it too firmly. The Cardiff Blue really was that hot.

He burst through the French line at least five times and if any of his team-mates had shown a fraction of the same awareness to support him on just one of these occasions then a man-of-the-match performance would also have been a match-winning one.

"He's deceptively quick," said Scott Johnson, the caretaker coach, although the only thing that appears deceptive about this 6ft 4in bull of a No 9 is the tag of "third-choice scrum-half". Dwayne Peel and Gareth Cooper will sure have to go some to keep this 23-year-old out of the side.

They are well capable of doing so, however, and it is such strength in depth that had Johnson enthusing yesterday. "Short-term pain for long-term gain," he declared. "All the injuries we had forced us to bring in the young. Yesterday they proved they've come through it. We now have a squad of 30 instead of 20. A bloody good one too."

France would have testified to that when trudging off at half-time 13-6 down after a well-worked Hal Luscombe try. The boat was definitely rocking and went on doing so until the 73rd minute, when Frédéric Michalak produced the one genuine piece of Gallic invention with a chip over the top to put Florian Fritz under the posts. But even then this would not have been enough had the video referee given Shane Williams the try most of the stadium believe he had scored a few minutes before.

"We were unlucky," said Johnson. "But then I'd rather be unlucky now than at the World Cup." That made it sound suspiciously like he would still be around next year, although in all probability the Australian will return home this week to be with his family and the Wallabies. Cue tears from the players, who love him, and tears from the fans who, in the main, do not after what may or may not have forced out the Grand Slam-winning coach Mike Ruddock in mid tournament.

In the light of all this rancour, then, would Johnson be leaving a message to whoever takes over? "Yeah, too right mate," he laughed. "I'd warn them to wear a coat of armour and make sure that the knives don't stick. Take my back. I've got more blood stains on it than Braveheart." And, no, that rebellion did not work out either.

Wales: L Byrne (Llanelli Scarlets); D James (Scarlets), H Luscombe (Newport-Gwent Dragons), M Watkins (Scarlets), S Williams (Ospreys); S Jones (Clermont Auvergne), M Phillips (Cardiff Blues); Du Jones (Ospreys), R Thomas (Blues), A Jones (Ospreys), I Gough (Dragons), R Sidoli (Blues), M Owen (Dragons, capt), M Williams (Blues), A Popham (Scarlets). Replacements: G Henson (Ospreys) for Byrne, h-t; M Davies (Gloucester) for R Thomas, 42; G Jenkins (Blues) for Du Jones, 52; Da Jones (Scarlets) for Popham, 68; J Thomas (Ospreys) for Sidoli, 75.

France: T Castaignède (Saracens); A Rougerie (Clermont Auvergne), F Fritz (Toulouse), D Traille (Biarritz), C Dominici (Stade Français); F Michalak (Toulouse), D Yachvili (Biarritz); S Marconnet (Stade Français), R Ibañez (Wasps), P de Villiers (Stade Français), F Pelous (Toulouse, capt), J Thion (Biarritz), Y Nyanga (Toulouse), J Bonnaire (Bourgoin), T Lièvremont (Biarritz). Replacements: D Szarzewski (Stade Français) for Lièvremont, 26-34 & for Ibañez, 43; C Heymans (Toulouse) for Castaignède, h-t; J-B Elissalde (Toulouse) for Yachvili, 43; O Magne (London Irish) for Lièvremont, 49; L Nallet (Castres) for Bonnaire, 55.

Referee: C White (England).

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