Second up on Super Saturday came the match that all of Wales had been dreading for the past week. Despite their first win in Warren Gatland’s second spell last week, Wales were still so far off the pace of the top teams in the competition and found themselves ending the tournament in Paris against a French team who had ran riot against England last weekend.
Wales came in having made a number of changes, with a focus on experience over form, and in fact earned the first chance of the game as a breakdown penalty allowed them to kick to the corner, but after Ken Owens spilled the ball at the back of the maul, Wyn Jones found himself held up over the line. Wales were making ground surprisingly well in their early attack and causing the French issues, and third penalty to the corner saw the maul stopped just short of the line, only for George North to pick a beautiful line to hit Rhys Webb’s wide pass for the opening try underneath the posts. If they had been shocked by the start, it didn’t take long for France to recover, and after Romain Ntamack broke down the left wing in their first attack, he offloaded to Antoine Dupont, whose wide pass found Damian Penaud in acres of space on the right for a quick answer. Wales were playing with a tempo and intent that had rarely been seen in recent years, but the French defence were finding answers, and then began growing into the game and winning some vital penalties at the breakdown, which eventually allowed Thomas Ramos to kick a penalty to put the hosts ahead for the first time after 26 minutes and another on the half hour to open up a gap on the visitors. The French attack was growing into the game too, and after Dupont was stopped just short in the left corner, the ball was spread down the hands to Jonathan Danty, who went over on the right wing. Wales perhaps got a little lucky soon after the restart as George North’s intervention to break up a French counterattack with Rio Dyer out of position was not considered a deliberate knock on, and the two teams were able to see out the half for a 20-7 score at the break.
The second half saw a much more impressive start from Les Bleus, who were immediately on the attack, and it took just a few minutes of concerted pressure in the 22 before the created an overlap just short of the try line, allowing Uini Atonio to power through the tackle of Louis Rees-Zammit for his first French try on his 50ᵗʰ cap. And their next attack was even more clinical, sending Gaël Fickou over on a beautiful line on the first phase after a lineout maul went nowhere, securing the bonus point in under 50 minutes. France were playing with confidence, but after being turned over in their own 22 after trying to play out from behind their own line, replacement hooker Bradley Roberts managed to force his way over for the try. Wales appeared to be going through a spell of momentum, and after Aaron Wainwright was stopped just short by Grégory Alldritt, Tomos Williams took the opportunity to snipe over from close range. But France put the pressure on in the final minutes to send Penaud over in the corner with just minutes left, which meant that a last gasp try for Rio Dyer was just a consolation bonus point, as the game ended 41-28.
They may not have faced the toughest of opponents in the last few weeks of the tournament, but after a disappointing loss to Ireland, France have made a statement.
Having arguably overplayed against Ireland, Les Bleus have been much more clinical in their matches against England and Wales, with a few exceptions like the decision to play out from their own in-goal which led to Bradley Roberts’ try. With Danty back providing his extra physicality in midfield, it feels like it has freed up carriers in the French pack like Cyril Baille, Sipili Falatea, Charles Ollivon and Grégory Alldritt to effect the game in better areas of the pitch. But you also get the feeling that they are holding something back with the World Cup so close.
Meanwhile in defence, Danty’s return has also been felt as it has not just solidified the midfield but also brought back an extra jackal threat to the back line, which one again allows the team to spread their jackals through the defensive line for maximum impact.
While France will be disappointed not to be celebrating a Grand Slam today, they can look back at this campaign as a success. The questions the may have been asked after losing to Ireland have been largely answered, while this tournament may have cost them Anthony Jelonch, it has seen the rise of Falatea, Thibaud Flament and Ethan Dumortier among others, along with the return of Thomas Ramos to add extra depth at 15 (while also being an emergency 10, which will surely see him make the World Cup squad) and a test of the depth at tighthead prop.
While they may not have won the Six Nations (assuming no shock victory in the finale from England), it’s another stepping stone as they build towards the Autumn and a World Cup which they must be one of the favourites to win.
I’m sure that I can’t have been the only one surprised when Warren Gatland announced his matchday squad, which sa a number of the youngsters who had been impressing given the weekend off, while a number of Gatland’s old favourites—who had frankly looked past it in may of their recent appearances—returned tot he starting lineup. Was Gatland just going back to his old favourites? Had he lost his mind? Or did he look at what happened to England last weekend and decide to remove as many of the kids as he could from the firing line so that their early Test careers did not involve the pain of taking an absolute hammering?
Well the old guard certainly caught myself—and perhaps even France—by surprise, with many of them putting in performances that ran back the clock. Rhys Webb continued where he left off against Italy, benefitting as well from the return of Dan Biggar outside him. Nick Tompkins looked comfortable in his first start of the tournament, George North was carrying and defending with a strength that we have not seen enough, while Alun Wyn Jones—who had looked years off the pace in recent appearances—was at the heart of everything, though it may be a little worrying that he only lasted to a few minutes into the second half.
Meanwhile, there suddenly seemed an intent in attack that has so often been missing. Instead of hitting a one-up runner or playing it down the line, Wales were targeting the fringes of the breakdown with pick and go carries, and taking every opportunity they could to keep the ball alive and the tempo high by offloading out of contact. The attack was drawing in the tacklers and creating gaps in the defence, while also forcing them to give away penalties as they attempted to slow the game down.
And in possibly one of the smartest moves, Gatland chose to use Gloucester superstar Louis Rees-Zammit at fullback, which saw him get more touches in the opening half than he had probably had all tournament, as he was given the freedom to find the gaps and hit them. Such is the talent that Rees-ammit has, the more Wales can get the ball in his hands the better, while with players like Josh Adams, Rio Dyer and Alex Cuthbert, Wales have enough other options to cover the wings.
With this being Wales’ last competitive match before the World Cup, some veterans may have just secured their spot in the squad, while a couple of others may have helped put themselves back in contention.
This year, I’m doing Movember a little different with my Movember Marathon.
You can find all the details on my announcement.
Visit my JustGiving page for updates or if you would like to donate.
Help me to change the face of men’s health!