France 41 v 28 Wales
France ended their Six Nations with a stylish win against an improving Wales, but Ireland’s victory dashed their hopes of retaining their title. Les Blues headed into the game knowing they needed an emphatic victory to put pressure on Ireland, and they duly delivered, running in five tries in an entertaining contest. France may have missed out on the title, but they have shown what a dangerous attacking side they are in the last two weeks, and they produced some swashbuckling rugby at times on Saturday.
For Wales, amongst the rubble of defeat, there were some hints of promise, and they were very much in the contest for the first half hour. Ultimately, France’s superior quality shone through, but Gatland’s side didn’t fold in the second half, and Rio Dyer’s late score gave them a bonus point. It has been a difficult campaign on and off the pitch for Wales, and despite sacking Wayne Pivac, they could only emulate last year’s fifth-place finish. Gatland will be partially relieved the tournament is over after all the upheaval his squad has faced and can start planning ahead for the World Cup in a slightly more positive frame of mind.Embed from Getty Images
Once again, Gatland rang the changes, making six alterations from the side that won in Rome and taking his total number of changes throughout the tournament to 26. Wales started the match positively, eschewing an early opportunity for three points and opting to go for the corner, but France just managed to disrupt their maul as it rumbled towards the line. There was an impressive purpose to Wales’s attack, playing with tempo as they looked to pick and go through the middle. Deservedly, they scored the game’s first try, tying the French defence in with their maul before Rhys Webb fired a lovely pass to George North, who sauntered over.
France responded immediately, Nick Tompkins unable to collar Romain Ntmack, who glided through the Welsh defence before offloading to Antoine Dupont at the perfect moment. Dupont still had a lot to do, but unsurprisingly he made it look easy, throwing a stunning thirty-metre pass out to Damian Penaud, who dotted the ball down. However, Wales recovered well, with Aaron Wainwright and the brilliant Toby Faletau carrying well on his hundredth cap. Wales kept the ball alive impressively with some neat offloading, minimising France’s breakdown threat, while in defence, they harried the French with some impressive line speed.
Crucially, Wales’s accuracy started to wane towards the end of the half, making a series of unforced errors that invited France into the game, and they conceded a couple of penalties at the breakdown. The metronomic Thomas Ramos nudged France into a six-point lead, and it wasn’t long before they had their second try. Once again, Dupont was instrumental, showcasing some lovely hands, and France eventually worked the ball wide, where Jonathan Danty powered over. Despite some sustained periods of possession, Wales headed into halftime, losing 20-7, with the French attack starting to purr.Embed from Getty Images
France flew out the blocks in the second half and quickly scored their third try. Dupont tied in about four defenders off the back of a scrum, and the ball was eventually shipped wide to the prop Uini Atonio who dived over. Things were starting to look ominous for Wales, and France soon had their bonus point try, some lovely hands from a line out freeing Gael Fickou to blast up the middle and score. France were really starting to fizz, disrupting Wales’s defensive structure, and it looked like a repeat of Twickenham was on the cards.
But Wales dug in, and some French over-ambition led to their second score. Substitute Tomos Williams’s clever kick off the back of a scrum caused chaos, and as France looked to run from their own line, Justin Tipuric turned the ball over, and in the subsequent attack, Bradley Roberts picked a great line to burst over. The try restored some of Wales’s confidence, and Dan Biggar started to cause problems with some probing up-and-unders. Wales soon had their third try, Tomos Williams sniping over after another excellent maul had preoccupied the French defence.
France almost hit back with a trademark scintillating counterattack, Penaud slicing through the Welsh defence after a loose kick from Louis Rees-Zammit, Tommy Refell’s turnover halting the attack. The game started to get a little niggly as France turned the screw, and they put the game to bed with their fifth try, Ramos feeding Penaud after a concerted spell of pressure. Wales ended the game on a high note, Rio Dyer conjuring a score out of nowhere, showing some electric pace and power to give Wales a bonus point.Embed from Getty Images
France will head into a home World Cup as the second-best side in the world after seventeen wins in eighteen games, defeat in Dublin being their only blip. Truthfully, in the championship, France and Ireland are in a class of their own, producing a consistency over eighty minutes that remains unmatched. There will be a lingering disappointment for France, having missed out on the title, but they bounced back impressively from their defeat against Ireland. Head Coach Fabien Galthié will hope his side can learn from their loss in Dublin as Ireland did from their loss in Paris last year. Regardless, France will be formidable opposition for anyone at the World Cup.
Defeat in Paris will likely be an ignominious final Six Nations appearance for many of Gatland’s players, the Kiwi predicting it as a championship farewell for as many as eight players. Despite seeds of improvement in their final two fixtures, Wales head into the World Cup in a state of confusion, with Gatland seemingly no nearer to deciding on his best side. Financial problems will likely hang over the side like a black cloud heading into the summer, and Gatland faces a tough ask getting his side in competitive shape for the World Cup. However, he would have been pleased about the resurgence of some of his senior players in the last two games, particularly Faletau and Webb, as well as the emergence of Dafydd Jenkins and Christ Tshuinza. Hopefully, Welsh rugby can get its house in order and limit the distractions for Gatland.