Wales end the drought

Wales 16 France 15;
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The Independent Online
If Wales should win the World Cup in Cardiff in 1999 they can barely expect a warmer response than that which greeted this long-awaited victory. The players leapt into the air, they hugged each other, they re-emerged from the tunnel to milk the applause and share in the sheer relief of ending a run of eight consecutive defeats in the Five Nations' Championship.

"It was a pleasure to walk into a happy dressing-room for a change," Kevin Bowring, the coach, said. Bowring and the captain, Jonathan Humphreys, believe it could be a defining moment in restoring the fortunes of a country which had hit rock bottom. Last summer, Humphreys, following a shattering defeat to Ireland in the World Cup in Johannesburg, felt so embarrassed he did not want to return home.

There was a feeling of deja vu in Dublin two weeks ago when Wales were again beaten by Ireland and again Humphreys felt so wretched he could barely look people in the eye. At home he pulled the blinds down and took the phone off the hook. On Saturday Humphreys addressed the team and left the players in no doubt that another defeat would be unacceptable.

"It was a very emotional experience," he said. "This time there would be no excuses, no ifs or buts. After Dublin critics had questioned our commitment and courage. Yet the response from the public had been superb. I even had five letters from people in Bosnia. Never has a team had such support without repaying it. There was a lot of pride in that performance."

If France were a shadow of the side that destroyed Ireland in Paris then that is partly because the Welsh forwards, lacking neither courage nor commitment, played with the greater aggression and, for the first time this season, managed to sustain it to the end. "We probably played better rugby in the other games," Humphreys admitted.

Wales were simply grateful for a win at any price and the fact that it was achieved against the Five Nations favourites was also important. "France are one of the top four countries in the world," Bowring said. "I admire the way they try to play." Wales did not exactly embrace the 15-man game that has characterised their season although they enjoyed a superiority in the line-out, and on the ground with Gwyn Jones playing a blinder, and also found a sympathetic referee in Brian Stirling.

The Irishman awarded Wales 21 penalties, France seven, a statistic that bemused Philippe Saint-Andre, the French captain. It is now almost an inevitability that a referee, unless he is stone deaf, will favour the home team. Whereas against Ireland Ieuan Evans scored two tries and saw plenty of the ball, he and Gareth Thomas barely received a pass, but the main reason for that was the obsessional marking of Leigh Davies.

Neil Jenkins passed the ball 17 times and kicked it eight and France, having watched the video of the Ireland-Wales game, made it a priority to stop Leigh Davies in his tracks and a pretty good job they made of it. It is also possible that Arwel Thomas, whom Jenkins replaced, is slightly quicker in giving Davies that vital extra yard in which to move.

Nigel Davies had one of his better games and benefited from the extra attention that was paid to his co-centre. He also played a part in the try scored by Robert Howley, which was brilliantly taken. The Bridgend scrum-half is such a strong runner that at times he is reminiscent of Gareth Edwards and no man can be paid a greater compliment.

Howley's try was surpassed by a magnificent counter-attack by France which resulted in a score for Thomas Castaignede but thereafter the floodgates remained closed. France were hurt by the departure of Guy Accoceberry and made an interesting tactical substitution when Olivier Brouzet came on for Sylvain Dispagne. Brouzet was warming up in the tunnel before Dispagne suddenly collapsed, holding his face in his hands. Emile Ntamack scored his customary try, exploiting a weakness in defence of Justin Thomas and Gareth Thomas and the conversion gave France a two-point lead with 13 minutes remaining.

However, seven minutes from the end Olivier Campan's enthusiasm for collaring Leigh Davies resulted in him tackling the Neath centre when not in possession and it gave Jenkins the chance to kick the winning penalty from in front of the posts. When Stirling signalled the end the sense of relief at the Arms Park was tangible.

"We can only get better," Humphreys said. And they will need to if they are to enjoy a successful tour of Australia in May-June which takes in two Tests. "In Australia we will have more time to spend together and iron out the problems we've encountered in the Five Nations," Humphreys said. "We've a young squad, we've had limited time to prepare and we were always going to be under pressure. Australia is where we can complete most of the building process."

WALES: J Thomas; I Evans (both 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, G Llewellyn (both Neath), D Jones, E Lewis, H Taylor (both Cardiff), G Jones (Llanelli).

FRANCE: J-L Sadourny (Colomiers); E Ntamack (Toulouse), S Glas (Bourgoin), O Campan (Agen), P Saint-Andre (Montferrand, capt); T Castaignede (Toulouse), G Accoceberry (Begles); C Califano (Toulouse), J-M Gonzalez (Bayonne), F Tournaire (Narbonne), A Benazzi (Agen), O Roumat (Dax), R Castel, S Dispagne (both Toulouse), L Cabannes (Racing Club). Replacements: F Galthie (Colomiers) for Accoceberry, 22; O Brouzet (Grenboble) for Dispagne, 50; R Ibanez (Dax) for Castel, 76.

Referee: B Stirling (Ireland).