The 2019 Six Nations kicked off in spectacular fashion on Friday night as Wales took a trip to Paris to take on the French. The Welsh came into the game on a run of 9 consecutive wins but did not adapt to the conditions in the first half and were thoroughly outplayed by a much better French team, who led 16-0 at half time. A try for Tomos Williams 6 minutes into the second half sparked a French collapse and George North capitalised on 2 mistakes to score twice and give the Welsh a 19-24 victory.
It’s become cliché to say that you never know which France team will show up from week to week. They took it one step further last night by doing a 180⁰ turn in their performance at half time!
In the first half, Morgan Parra and Camille Lopez were playing the conditions to perfection by kicking for territory and daring the Welsh to play the ball away, while Louis Picamoles trucking the ball forward and Arthur Iturria throwing some lovely offloads, while the back 3 looked to capitalise on any loose kicks from Wales.
However in the second half, the Welsh started to control the ball better and Tomos Williams’ try from Josh Adams’ break appeared to fluster them. Iturria disappeared from the game, Picamoles was marshalled better by the Welsh defence and handling errors began to creep into the French game – most notably Yoann Huget’s fumble on his own line to gift North his first try. What really surprised me is how soon France started making wholesale changes, most notably the removal of Guilhem Guirado – who may not have been having the best match of his career but is still such an important leader for the team – at a time when they needed leaders to settle things down.
It looked like they may have got back into things when at 19-17 with just 9 minutes left, Gaël Fickou beat Adams to a high ball just outside the Welsh 22, but from the resulting breakdown everything went wrong for France. 2 forwards got in the way of Baptiste Serin’s pass to Lopez, causing him to throw a looped pass that the fly half needed to take above his head. Lopez – knowing there was space on the outside – chose to throw a pass to Sébastien Vahaamahina but threw a pass that the second row had to jump to take above his head – an awful pass considering the lock is over 2 metres tall and there was no reason to put the pass high. After 2 such poor passes put the French on the back foot, Vahaamahina should have just driven forward and allowed his team to reset, but instead he tried to throw an audacious wide pass to Huget – missing out both Maxime Médard and Romain Ntamack – that was easily picked off by North and ran back for the winning try.
There is no way that a team should be throwing away a 16-point halftime lead at home and coupled with their loss to Fiji in the Autumn Tests, there is certainly a cause to be worried about the fragility of the French team when put under pressure, despite the obvious promise their first half performance showed.
Discipline almost costly
If not for the French mistakes, Wales’ lack of discipline would have cost them the match. There were so many silly little penalties that you would not expect a team of this experience to be giving away. From Justin Tipuric competing too hard at the lineout and pulling his man down to Ross Moriarty diving on the ball from an offside position after Gareth Davies knocked on at a scrum, in a game that they were struggling to control, these infringements were just giving he French extra chances. There was also a period following Liam Williams’ disallowed try where Wales gave away a series of silly penalties that allowed the French to make their way down the length of the pitch without any real pressure.
It was not even just the discipline in terms of penalties that was lacking at times in this game (particularly the first half) as they made errors that a team as well coached as they are should not be making. George North bit in to tackle Arthur Iturria when Gareth Anscombe was already making the tackle and this allowed the flanker to offload to Huget, who now had the space to run in for France’s second try. Then with just 30 seconds left in the half, Wales won a free kick in their 22. Rather than hold onto the ball for a couple of phases then kicking the ball out of play, they chose to kick downfield to the French, giving them the chance of 1 last attack before halftime and leading to a drop goal that could have proved crucial later in the game.
I hope that these errors do not count against some of these players as I think Wales had the right players involved for the game and I think Anscombe and Williams deserve an extended run in the starting line-up, but Wales need to ensure that they start matches faster and keep their discipline better if they want to win the tournament.
Bigger but not better
The French scrum showed on Friday night that, contrary to what some people may say, size isn’t everything. With behemoths like Uini Atonio, Vahaamahina and Paul Willemse starting, the French boasted one of the heaviest packs in the history of international rugby, considerably heavier than their Welsh opponents. Yet despite this, the Welsh scrum was the one winning penalties and free kicks for much of the match.
While size and strength obviously helps in a scrum, technique is also very important and I feel that this is an area where the French struggle without Rabah Slimani. The French began having more luck with the scrum later in the game, but whether this was down to their better scrummagers being on the bench or the Welsh replacements not being able to match what their starters had been able to do.
With England’s generally strong scrum next up, it will be interesting to see how the French pack fairs at Twickenham, especially if Atonio is missing as it appeared to be a hamstring issue that saw him be replaced early in the second half.
George North may have been given the Man of the Match award, but to me the standout player in the game was his teammate Josh Navidi. The flanker did make a couple of mistakes, with a knock on ending an attack in the first half and one moment where he was out of position leading to a penalty for Dan Biggar holding on, but he put in a huge performance beyond that and had a real impact on the game. He ran hard with the ball and made good ground on a couple of occasions to put Wales on the front foot, including the build-up to Liam Williams’ disallowed try. But most notable was his defence. His strength in the tackle was stopping even Louis Picamoles in his tracks and forcing handling errors, while he also did a great job of holding players off the ground to create mauls and turnover ball.
To me, he would walk into the starting line-up of most 6 Nations teams, but if everyone was fit for Wales there is no guarantee he will start, such is the strength in depth in the Welsh back row!