France run in five tries to beat Wales and take Six Nations to the wire

  • France 41-28 Wales
  • France finish second after Ireland complete grand slam

If championships were awarded for artistic merit, this ought to have been enough to secure France a consecutive title. They blew Wales away when it mattered, which was either side of half-time, but they will bemoan the four tries their visitors came away with, three of them scored when it did not really matter, long after the result had been secured.

For all that the bonus point took France temporarily clear of Ireland at the top of the table, no one in Paris seriously thought their best efforts would be enough. France and Ireland are so far ahead of the rest that it feels as if whichever holds home advantage for their fixture will likely secure the title. This year it was Ireland’s turn.

England did their best to reward France for the way they humiliated them the week before at Twickenham, but the difference in class between the top two and everyone else is clear. This win over Wales was not quite that level of humiliation. Indeed, Wales began and finished the match with energy and efficiency.

Far from all bad, then, but it has been a dispiriting Six Nations for them, on and off the field. They have veered between the super-experienced and the very young this championship. It was poignant how the introduction of a few of the latter seemed to lift their tempo for the final quarter.

“For a lot of the boys, it probably is going to be our last Six Nations game,” said captain Ken Owens. “But it’s got to come at some point. I’m just proud to have led the team out, a team that has put massive pride into the Welsh jersey.”

Scotland had obliged Wales by securing a win over Italy, which meant they would be spared the ignominy of the wooden spoon, whatever happened. Resigned to fifth place, they drew in the clean air and played their best rugby of the tournament. For 10 minutes or so.

Three times Wales sent penalties to the corner. At the third, Owens drove to within inches, and Rhys Webb picked out George North for the game’s opening try. France could barely get their hands on the ball.

Damian Penaud takes off to score France’s first try.
Damian Penaud takes off to score France’s first try. Photograph: László Gecző/INPHO/Shutterstock

That is a condition to frustrate more than just the Stade de France’s clientele these days, such is their facility. But they do not require many touches to make something happen. Sure enough, they responded within two minutes of North’s try. Romain Ntamack broke imperiously and flicked a pass off to Antoine Dupont, whose long ball to Damien Penaud was delivered with even greater authority. Penaud had the first of a brace.

France stretched their lead over the next 20 minutes to six with two Thomas Ramos penalties, before blowing Wales away with three tries either side of the break. Ntamack was key again to the second, in the 34th minute, his half-break releasing Ramos. Gaël Fickou went close, before two long passes found Jonathan Danty on the right in more than enough space for a man of his power to finish.

Wales were grateful for the whistle that signalled the end of the first half, but there was nothing they could do about the one that started the second. France unleashed a pair of set-piece moves with which to rack up the bonus point. They scrummed an early penalty; Dupont broke from the base to within a foot; Cyril Baille carried to within an inch; and Ramos sent Uini Atonio crashing over for his first French try on his 50th cap.

Five minutes later, France hit an even higher note off a lineout. None of this driven-maul business, Danty and Ntamack combined to send Fickou tearing through the Welsh midfield, and the bonus point had been secured within 10 minutes of the resumption – 34-7.

That, obviously, was the game. But a curious rhythm can develop when that happens, not to mention when the dominant team cannot know if they have done enough. France tore Wales open again and again after that, but with French excitement can come opportunity. Wales, to their credit, capitalised, their replacements seeming to raise the tempo.

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Ntamack tried to find Ramos behind his own tryline, whence Ramos tried to run. Justin Tipuric was over the tackle in a flash, and dazzling hands among Wales’s backs paved the way for their second just short of the hour, finished by replacement hooker Bradley Roberts. Ten minutes later, they had their third, Tipuric again down the left, where he was helped by Tommy Reffell. Tomos Williams darted over.

That closed the gap to 13, but France reimposed their dominance with a fifth, the forwards battering away at Wales’s line.

They know, though, more than most forwards, to surrender the ball to the executioners out wide. Ntamack and Ramos did the honours for Penaud to claim his second. Ramos’s conversion extended the lead to 20, which at that point was enough to match Ireland’s points difference.

There was genuine anger, then, in French ranks when Dyer escaped at the death for Wales’s fourth. France had done all they could. At least their fate will be returned to their own hands come September, when they open their own World Cup against the All Blacks.


Michael Aylwin at the Stade de France

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