Just when it seemed the Dragonhood would once again rise from the ashes here in Cardiff last night so reality intervened. France are not Scotland and despite threatening to implode just like the Tartan visitors of two weeks before, they eventually came to their senses. But only just.
The irony was lost on nobody when Frédéric Michalak did what Mike Blair had failed to do and kicked the final restart into touch. Shane Williams had just scored his 19th Six Nations try – a record for Wales – and with the game standing at 26-20 and time for one play left, the Welsh dared to believe again. But where Blair had afforded them the opportunity to launch the thrilling match-winning touchdown, so Michalak coolly trampled all over their hopes and the match ended with a sigh instead of a roar.
Yes, it was an anti-climax, but, in truth, Wales had no-one but themselves to blame. Once again they started in horrible sluggish fashion handing France a 20-0 interval lead with two interception tries. They came back with what is now their trademark mixture of guts and flair, but basic errors were to ultimately end their Championship challenge. Jamie Roberts, like the rest of his nation, will always wonder why he did not pass to James Hook earlier with the try-line begging, the scoreboard reading 20-13 and their opponents down to 14 men. Effectively the match finished there and then. No matter how brilliant Williams's finale.
As it is, France march on with the Grand Slam in their sights. This was the first time in Marc Lièvremont's three-year reign where they have won three Tests on the bounce. With Italy away and then England at home awaiting they will now be strongly fancied to make it the magic five. As long as they can put the memory of this second-half meltdown behind them.
It was an emotional night from the beginning with tears in the minutes before kick-off. Bradley Davies, the young Wales lock, lost his mother last week after a short illness. A minute silence was held in her honour and the players had a tribute stitched into their shirts. The scenario would have wrecked many a player. Not Davies. He played like a man inspired. If only so many of his team-mates could claim the same.
It took Alexis Palisson just six minutes to score France's first try. The Brive wing was the victim of Jerry Flannery's spectacular fly-kick against Ireland in Paris; yet it was Hook who was seemingly dazed and confused when throwing a long pass out to Roberts straight into Palisson's hands for an uninterrupted glory trot.
Wales have made a habit of conceding interceptions just as they have a made a habit of playing catch-up. And when Morgan Parra kicked two penalties they were 13-0 down. In the build-up, Warren Gatland urged his men to hit the ground running. But for the fourth Test in a row, Wales simply hit the ground.
By the break they were all but buried in their own unforced errors. Again it was an interception and again the crassness of its profligacy almost defied belief. They had just survived a French onslaught when the ball was turned over and handed to Shane Williams. With time up, all that was necessary was for the wing to kick it into touch. Instead Shane went for it, flinging up a ridiculous pass from the floor. This time François Trinh-Duc was there to collect and take his stroll between the posts. Twenty points down, with Gallic dominance almost complete. A Welsh fight back was out of the question. But...
Following the Scotland Lazarus act, the Millennium faithful certainly still believed and when Hook cut through as the game restarted a momentum-swinging try was pending. Alas, Luke Charteris knocked on and all Wales could take away was a Stephen Jones penalty. But then they came again and their new-found directness was rewarded by another Jones penalty. Was another great escape in the offing? The French were beginning to look ragged; the game was going flip-flop.
But then Wales lost their own lineout five yards out and then Lee Byrne inexplicably kicked a penalty the wrong side of the French corner flag. The time was ticking. Yet not as quickly as the visitors were capitulating. In the 63rd minute came a passage of play which suddenly and ever so remarkably established Wales as the favourites. Shane Williams put in Leigh Halfpenny at the corner but as the euphoria promised to blow off the roof the realisation hit home that Parra had also been sent to the sin-bin for deliberately knocking-on in the move. When Jones converted Wales were within a score and had a man advantage. It was déjà vu all over again.
There was nothing to stop Wales when Roberts ran on to Jones' kick. With one defender to beat and with Hook alongside, a game-tying try appeared academic. But Roberts bafflingly hesitated, Hook was forced to switch inside and when the pass came it was under pressure and was knocked on. Michalak then landed two penalties and with the gap back to 13 life drained out of the resurgence. Until Williams' miraculous last-second run, that is. It meant Wales had lost by a whisker. In all honesty it was a long whisker.
Scorers: Wales Tries Halfpenny, S Williams; Conversions S Jones (2); Penalties S Jones (2); ). France: Tries Palisson, Trinh-Duc; Conversions Parra 2; Penalties Parra 3, Michalak.
Wales: L Byrne (Ospreys); L Halfpenny (Cardiff Blues), J Hook (Ospreys), J Roberts (Cardiff Blues), S Williams (Ospreys); S Jones (Scarlets), R Rees (Cardiff Blues); P James (Ospreys), H Bennett (Ospreys), A Jones (Ospreys), B Davies (Cardiff Blues), D Jones (Cardiff Blues), J Thomas (Ospreys), M Williams (Cardiff Blues), R Jones (Ospreys, capt). Replacements used: L Charteris (Dragons) for D Jones, 24.
France: C Poitrenaud (Toulouse); J Malzieu (Clermont Auvergne), M Bastareaud (Stade Français), Y Jauzion (Toulouse), A Palisson (Brive); F Trinh-Duc (Montpellier), M Parra (Clermont Auvergne); T Domingo (Clermont Auvergne), W Servat (Toulouse), N Mas (Perpignan), L Nallet (Racing-Metro), J Pierre (Clermont Auvergne), T Dusautoir (Toulouse, capt), J Bonnaire (Clermont Auvergne), I Harinordoquy (Biarritz). Replacements used: D Szarzewski (Stade Français) for Servat, 52; J-B Poux (Toulouse) for Domingo, 55; S Chabal (Racing Metro) for Pierre, 63; F Michalak (Toulouse) for Trinh-Duc, 64; D Marty (Perpignan) for Bastareaud, 69, A Lapandry (Clermont) for Harinordoquy, 69.
Referee: J Kaplan (South Africa).
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