With the 2020 Six Nations set to finally conclude next week and the Autumn Nations Cup begin straight after, France and Wales met at the Stade de France for a highly entertaining warm-up match.
Les Bleus may have won the Six Nations fixture back in February, but they were soon behind as some lovely passing from Justin Tipuric helped put Leigh Halfpenny over in the corner, Biggar landing the conversion and a penalty soon after. The French soon got going though, and after Romain Ntamack and Antoine Dupont broke to bring possession all the way to the Welsh try line, prop Cyril Baille crashed over from close range. France were growing into the game and after another penalty from Biggar, an offload from Virimi Vakatawa released Teddy Thomas down the right wing and he played the ball back inside to send Antoine Dupont over for the try, with Ntamack adding the conversion to put the French ahead. Their lead was soon increased as Gaël Fickou put Vakatawa through a hole and Dupont was again found supporting on an inside line for a second try in quick succession, Ntamack nailing the kick to make it 21-13 at the break.
The second half started close, with both kickers adding 3 points to their team’s score, while the closest either team came to a try in the 3ʳᵈ quarter was as French number 8 Grégory Alldritt ran a beautiful out-to-in line to breakthrough the Welsh goal-line defence, only to fail to keep hold of the pass. The French struck soon after the hour mark, though, as Josh Adams – who had moved to fullback following Halfpenny’s departure – failed to collect a high ball from Dupont, which the scrum half then collected before breaking through a gap in the Welsh defence and feeding his captain Charles Ollivon for another try. The Welsh kept coming, though Biggar (who had been struggling with an injury since the tenth minute) missed a couple of kicks at goal, but after Ntamack failed to clean up a kick through by Nick Tompkins, George North collected and fed Tompkins to bring the Welsh up to the French goal line, with Nicky Smith forcing himself over a few phases later. Any chance of a Welsh comeback was soon ended however, as Teddy Thomas chased and collected his own chip to go over in the corner, with Ntamack kicking the conversion to secure a 38-21 victory.
If the Irish were watching this match in preparation for next weekend’s Six Nations fixture, I can imagine they got a little nervous.
This may be one of the best French teams I can remember watching, and there is the potential that they will only get better over the next few years as the younger players gain experience and more players from the recently successful U20s team make the step up to the seniors. Right now, all the politics that always seems to plague French squads appears to be gone, and the pressure is off the team, leading to incredible performances.
Antoine Dupont is securing himself as one of the best scrum halves in the world, while Virimi Vakatawa is almost unplayable when on form, with an incredible blend of strength, pace and footwork, and a killer offload when all that fails! Teddy Thomas’ abilities have never been in question and Romain Ntamack looks experienced beyond his 21 years and 17 caps. And then in the pack, you are getting a great blend of sheer physical power and more technical prowess.
In this game, the French attack was pummelling away at the Welsh defensive line throughout, but as they grew into the game, they started to find and manipulate the gaps, especially around wherever Vakatawa could be found, while Dupont always seemed to be in just the right place whenever a teammate broke through.
Assuming the French can stay away from all the infighting and politics that seems to always destroy them, I would make France my favourites for the 2023 Rugby World Cup.
When Gareth Anscombe first started showing signs of discomfort during Wales’ World Cup warm-up match against England, I felt that he should be removed immediately to avoid the risk that a small niggle could potentially become something worse. The doctors chose to let him continue, but he went off a little later with his World Cup dream over and an ACL injury that he is still to return from. Obviously, I can’t say that keeping him on the pitch made things worse, but in a “warm-up” or “friendly” ahead of a tournament, the last thing I want to do is risk one of my key players if they are carrying a knock.
So imagine my surprise when Dan Biggar started struggling with an injury to his leg just 10 minutes in, but continued to play until the 73ʳᵈ minute. Now, credit to Biggar that he is a warrior who doesn’t want to go off and let his team down, but there were a number of moments throughout the match where he was either clearly limping or not looking fully comfortable, and I can’t help feeling that this injury helped contribute to his uncharacteristically poor 57% success rate off the tee. I also noticed that he didn’t seem to be as much of a figure in the kick chase as usual, a big loss considering just how impressive he is in the air.
What makes the decision to keep him on even more perplexing is that they had a replacement fly half on the bench in the form of Rhys Patchell, who could have very easily taken over the running of the team at any point, but was instead wasted on a 7-minute cameo with the victory already out of Wales’ reach.
It will be interesting to see how Wayne Pivac acts in the future of any key players take a knock.
The beginning of the end?
While it is wonderful to see Taulupe Faletau back in the Welsh line-up, I couldn’t help question before the match if he was still able to hold a spot in the starting XV, let along the wider squad. 80 minutes later and I still don’t feel any more confident.
The Bath number 8 was arguably one of the best in the world at his position and at 29 should still have a handful of good years in him, but he has missed so much time over recent years with a number of injuries and looks a shadow of the player he used to.
He used to be a real threat with ball in hand in wide areas, but in this game only carried 4 times for a tiny 9 metres. Defensively, he was still reliable with a 100% tackle success rate but that was only from 9 tackles, far off the total of Justin Tipuric, who you would much rather have getting over the ball after the tackle rather than making the tackle himself. The only other bit to Faletau’s game was his cleaning up, which he did to some degree with the scrum coming under heavy pressure.
But is tackling and cleaning up really enough from a Tier 1 starting number 8 these days? The Welsh need physical carriers in the pack to help them get on the front foot and make up for the loss of Haleigh Parkes at 12 and as such, I think that the team would benefit far more from Ross Moriarty or Josh Navidi (who should be nailed on as a starter) rather than Faletau. There is only so long that a player can be picked on past performances. To me, it is time for Faletau to earn his place back in the squad.