Stirring Wales pass the spoon

Wales 16 France 15 Try: Howley 12 Tries: Castaignede 18, Ntamack 67 Con: Jenkins 12 Con: Castaignede 67 Pens: Jenkins 29, 60, 73 Pen: Castaignede 50; Half-time: 10-5 Attendance: 53,000
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The Independent Online
EVEN if it gave England the championship, Wales were still overjoyed with this single-point victory over the title favourites, France, which saved them from a second successive whitewash. They had salvaged something memorable from a season in which one high hope after had been followed by disappointment. And they did it without sacrificing the fast, ambitious, total rugby which had so far brought them no success.

It has to be said, too, that while the talented Arwel Thomas may be the future, the experienced Neil Jenkins provided the present assurance that matters on the field would be conducted sensibly. He not only kicked 11 of Wales's points, but fairly reliably found safe touches and cleared up the fringes with solid passing and tackling in mid-field.

What the morning's Today programme dimissed as "the other championship match", had its own pressing agenda. France knew that so far they were well ahead of Scotland and England on balance of points. But also that if England scored as freely against Ireland as they themselves had done in Paris, that balance could swing the other way. To be sure of the title, they had to beat Wales handsomely. For the Welsh, any sort of win would do but, depending on events at Twickenham, a surplus of points would also be handy if they were to slip the wooden spoon to the Irish.

A raw, foggy day at Cardiff Arms Park would not have been France's choice for the final game. If Wales could add to their misery by ambushing them before they settled, as the Scots had done at Murrayfield, the no- hopers would become long shots. The first 20 minutes would tell.

The Welsh onslaught after the kick-off came much in the manner of the Scots. First the backs were given their freedom, then the forwards came surging through and the French put up a blanket defence to keep them out. Neil Jenkins failed with one early penalty after Califano had been spotted using his boot, but Wales came back with a beautifully judged diagonal kick from Nigel Davies which set them up again on the French 22. Again the French smothered the attack, but from a ruck, instead of feeding his backs, Robert Howley ran in a broad arc to his left and away from the cover to cross for a try near the corner. Jenkins converted, and after 12 minutes of play, the Welsh had made the breakthrough.

They continued to press, but in their eagerness to score again, they made the mistake of leaving one of their flanks undefended. The French ran out of defence on their own 22, Tournaire, Cabannes, Sadourney and Saint-Andre eating up the ground and splitting the last line of defence, Justin Thomas and Ieuan Evans, before putting the stand-off, Thomas Castaignede, over for a wonderfully rolling try which he failed to convert. In the 31st minute Jenkins improved the Welsh lead to 10-5 with a penalty. There the scores remained at half-time, when news of Ireland's lead over England was greeted with equal rapture. Perhaps the Celts were coming good at last.

But it was too early to count on that. The French continued to snipe around the edges, and after Tournaire and Saint-Andre had in turn been held in the left corner, an attack on the right brought Castaignede a penalty for a Welsh defensive offside 10 minutes into the second half. Ten minutes later Jenkins had a second chance to restore the balance with a penalty from almost the spot where he had failed two minutes before, and put Wales back ahead by five points.

But Wales, having played with such fine concentration so far, seemed to lose their grip as the game went into its final quarter of an hour. It came about in a curious way. France were clear on the right, but the pass to Emile Ntamack only reached him on the bounce. This put off the two defenders, Justin and Gareth Thomas - as they went for him he slipped between them. Castaignede converted: France were in front for the first time.

The reprieve came in the form of Olivier Campan, who obligingly tackled Leigh Davies without the ball right under the French posts. Jenkins kicked the penalty with great deliberation. And although the last six minutes were agony for the crowd, there isn't one of them who wouldn't suffer it again.

Wales: J Thomas (Llanelli); I Evans (Llanelli), L Davies (Neath), N Davies (Llanelli), G Thomas (Bridgend); N Jenkins (Pontypridd), R Howley (Bridgend); C Loader (Swansea), J Humphreys (Cardiff, capt), J Davies (Neath), G Llewellyn (Neath), D Jones (Cardiff), E Lewis (Cardiff), G Jones (Llanelli), H Taylor (Cardiff). Replacements: none.

France: J-L Sadourney (Colomiers); E Ntamack (Toulouse), S Glas (Bourgoin), O Campan (Agen), P Saint-Andre (Montferrand, capt); T Castaignede (Toulouse), G Accocberry (Begles); C Califano (Toulouse), J-M Gonzales (Bayonne), F Tournaire (Narbonne), A Benazzi (Agen), O Roumat (Dax), R Castel (Toulouse) L Cabannes (Racing Club), S Dispagne (Toulouse). Replacements: E Galthir (Colomiers) for Accocberry, 20min. O Brouzet (Grenoble) for Dispagne, 48 min. R Ibanez (Dax) for Castel, 74min.

Referee: B Stirling (Scotland).