A little over three weeks after shipping 60 points to England at Twickenham – oh, the humiliation of it – Wales found themselves on the wrong end of a French 30-pointer in their own capital.
If the arithmetic suggested Gareth Jenkins' team had at least taken a step in the right direction, the reality begged to differ. The Red Dragonhood fielded something that looked suspiciously like their senior World Cup team, yet were cuffed around the ears like a group of third-formers suffering from a mass inferiority complex. They were lucky to escape as lightly as they did.
Towards the end of the contest the Welsh saw their captain, Gareth Thomas, depart the field on a stretcher. If there was something distressing about the sight – this was the last warm-up game ahead of the global tournament, which begins in Paris a week on Friday – Thomas had only himself to blame. Having moved from centre to full-back to fill a hole left by the injured Kevin Morgan, he took an amateurish right-footed swing at a loose ball on halfway and collided with Thierry Dusautoir, who must have expected something a whole lot classier from an opponent with 97 caps to his name.
Somehow, it symbolised the Welsh effort. They were mashed in the scrums, minced at the breakdown and marmalised in open field, where the likes of Cédric Heymans and Aurélien Rougerie made strong cases for inclusion in the Tricolore side that will open the World Cup against Argentina. Heymans, in particular, hurt Wales with his running from deep; indeed, with a touch more precision the French would have scored a couple of long-range tries to add to the four they managed from inside the home side's 22.
The most clean-cut of these was completed by Rougerie just shy of the hour. A few seconds before, he had been denied by Michael Phillips, who somehow beat him to a rolling ball a few metres from the Welsh line. Imagine the scrum-half's frustration when, from the resulting line-out, Rougerie accepted the simplest of inside passes from Lionel Beauxis and ambled over at the sticks without a hand being laid upon him.
Not that Phillips was alone in seeing defensive work go to waste. France were already 10 points to the good – a dinky little sand-wedge of a penalty from Beauxis, a fierce drive to the line from the impressive Jérôme Thion – when Martyn Williams, that most intelligent of footballing flankers, forced Vincent Clerc into a fumble in the Welsh in-goal area, then fell on the ball to stop the advancing Tricolore pack as they turned the screw. It was to no avail. Dwayne Peel's clearance kick was charged down by Imanol Harinordoquy and Pierre Mignoni did the rest.
To Williams' credit, he resisted the temptation to spend the rest of the game in a sulk. Rather, he was rewarded in the 10th minute of first-half stoppage time. James Hook, the young outside-half from Neath who bears the stamp of the great No 10s in Welsh folklore, caused mayhem with an alert kick over the French midfield, and duly completed the attack by receiving an inspired round-the-corner pass from Williams and slithering over the line with Heymans and Rougerie in close attendance. Hook added the extras, too. Ten points adrift at 17-7, there was at least the possibility of a real game breaking out after the interval.
It never materialised. France withdrew Mignoni and Thion, yet were still able to exert a level of control bordering on the complete. Serge Betsen, captain in the absence of Raphaël Ibanez, played his usual blinder on the flank, but the Tricolores could have asked Jacques Tati to lead the team and still won going away.
Beauxis, one of several backs capable of sending 60-metre touch-finders spiralling into the Cardiff sky – or rather, into the Millennium Stadium roof, which had been drawn shut in an effort to stop the players being affected by sunstroke – kicked a second penalty seven minutes into the half before converting Rougerie's try. The hooker Sébastien Bruno then wrestled his way to another five points – an all-too-predictable score improved by Jean-Baptiste Elissalde with his customary nonchalance.
The French are perfectly set up for the serious business about to unfold. If their line-out was unusually fragile yesterday – partly because Sébastien Chabal's impersonation of a salmon was less than convincing, partly because Jonathan Thomas and Alun-Wyn Jones showed exceptional athleticism in the air – the rest of their game was entirely persuasive. At loose forward, they covered all the bases; in midfield, they mixed the magical and the muscular in a way only the Australians and the New Zealanders might have matched. On this evidence, they can play it every which way – hard and tight, fast and loose, punishingly direct or jaw-droppingly flamboyant.
And the Welsh? Oh dear. Jenkins, the head coach, has received a career's worth of criticism in the 20-odd days since that desperate performance in London, some of it poisonously personal. Llanelli's favourite son is a far better strategist than some would have us believe, but as the witching hour approaches even he must have his doubts. With one captain, Stephen Jones, struggling with a groin condition and another, Thomas, in so many pieces, leaders are in short supply. Worse, so is confidence. Wales have lost too many games – and lost them too badly – to threaten the world's best next month.Reuse content