Wales 16 France 21: Fritz flies in to break Welsh hearts

French centre's late strike a cruel blow as Johnson's men so nearly end tough season on a high
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The Independent Online

At the conclusion of a workaday Six Nations it was fitting that France, as the new champions, had to graft like crazy to reach their goal. Wales had long since relinquished their trophy in this season of injuries and off-the-field rancour, but they raged against the ultimate dying of their Grand Slam light. They were driven from scrum-half almost superhumanly by Mike Phillips, and held the lead going into the last quarter, only to be overhauled by a try from the French centre Florian Fritz. When blue-jerseyed arms were held aloft at the final whistle it was with as much relief as exultation.

The mathematical conundrum engendered by yesterday's staggered kick-offs meant that Jean-Baptiste Elissalde's hoof of the ball into touch at the end here was only the start of two hours' wait for France to be able to confirm their third title in five years. Still, Fabien Pelous, strain and pleasure etched across his yeoman's face, said: "We waited and waited and knew it would come good for us. It was very hard but we always had confidence. We are very happy." Pelous might have been celebrating another Slam to go with the four he has already shared in, had the team he captains not been beaten on the first weekend in Scotland.

There was controversy over a Welsh try that never was. With 69 minutes gone, Frédéric Michalak dived over a loose ball in the French in-goal, with Shane Williams subsequently grounding it. The video referee judged that Michalak had made the necessary contact with his body. Wales argued he had not. Within three minutes Michalak kicked deep into Welsh territory and Robert Sidoli hacked into touch. From the line-out France scored the crucial try. Jérôme Thion palmed to Yannick Nyanga, it came out to Michalak and his chip over the cover was roared on to by Fritz. In came a cover tackle from Martyn Williams but it was not enough. Elissalde converted and later added a penalty from a line-out on Wales's 10-metre line. Wales had one more attack - the Williamses, Martyn and Shane, to the fore - but the win was beyond them.

Italy's earlier loss in Rome meant Wales could not suffer the ignominy of France in 1969 and 1999, and Scotland in 1985, of being landed with the wooden spoon 12 months after a Grand Slam. The stadium roof was closed to keep the worst of the arctic elements at bay, and Wales lit a fire under France by trusting to their old instincts. Stephen Jones - in the mood to show how much he has learned playing for a French club - kicked two penalties to one by Dimitri Yachvili. In the 25th minute Raphaël Ibañez went to the sin-bin: the French hooker reacted to missing a tackle on Hal Luscombe by tackling Sidoli without the ball.

While France were down to 14 men, Wales's persistent use of their threequarters paid off. The ball flashed from right to left and, despite a momentary hesitation when it bounced to ground, it was recycled for Luscombe to steal away close to the touchline and pass inside to the supporting Shane Williams. It looked as if the little Osprey would flutter all the way to the posts. In fact, he was brilliantly dragged down by the jersey by Julien Bonnaire but, just as cleverly, managed to get away a scoring pass to Luscombe over his left shoulder. Stephen Jones converted for a Wales lead of 13-3.

Yachvili replied in first-half added time with a straightforward penalty. The second half opened with long range penalty misses by Damien Traille and Elissalde - the latter on for Yachvili. It did not take them long to gain a foothold, nevertheless. Dafydd James was tackled into touch by Fritz and a ruthless short-side line-out drive ended with Dimitri Szarzeswki scoring only a few minutes after he had replaced Ibañez.

It was 13-11 with Elissalde failing to convert and a bit of French discipline disappeared up the Taff. All their line-out gains at Wales's expense seemed to be counting for little. There was a dash of 2005 and all that when Gavin Henson entered the fray for Wales and booted over a 56th-minute penalty from close to the halfway line. Some prime copy for the paperback version of his incendiary My Grand Slam Year, due to appear with an extra chapter this summer.

Wales's Australian skills coach, Scott Johnson, watched it all in relative calm from the touchline. It is thought likely he will announce the decision over his future this week, with the Welsh Rugby Union saying yesterday the vacant post of head coach would be subject to interview in April. Funnily enough, it looks an attractive job all over again.

Wales: L Byrne (Scarlets); D James (Scarlets), H Luscombe (Dragons), M Watkins (Scarlets), S Williams (Ospreys); S Jones (Clermont-Auvergne), M Phillips (Blues); Duncan Jones (Ospreys), R Thomas (Blues), A Jones (Ospreys), I Gough (Dragons), R Sidoli (Blues), M Owen (Dragons, capt), A Popham (Scarlets), M Williams (Blues). Replacements: G Henson (Ospreys) for Byrne, h-t; M Davies (Gloucester) for R Thomas, 42; G Jenkins (Blues) for Duncan Jones, 52; Dafydd 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), T Lièvremont (Biarritz), J Bonnaire (Bourgoin). Replacements: D Szarzewski (Stade Français) for Lièvremont, 26-34, 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).