France 21-16 Wales: Fired-up French puncture the Welsh balloon
WALES suffered their first RBS Six Nations defeat for almost two years as hopes of first back-to-back Grand Slams since 1909 floundered at Stade de France.
A run of eight successive Six Nations victories ground to a halt in the tournament's first Friday night fixture.
The reigning champions could have few complaints after blowing a 13-3 lead. They looked in control after full-back Lee Byrne's try and eight points from the boot of fly-half Stephen Jones generated a comfortable advantage.
France though, fought back to justify coach Marc Lievremont's team selection that featured a debut for 20-year-old Matthieu Bastareaud in midfield, with centre Benoit Baby at fly-half and novice Morgan Parra handed goalkicking duties. Parra slotted three penalties and a conversion as France edged the try-count through touchdowns by flanker Thierry Dusautoir and wing Cedric Heymans.
Substitute James Hook kicked a late Wales penalty, but France were good value for the win that Lievremont so badly needed.
Both sides can still win the championship, yet unbeaten Ireland now appear to be in control ahead of their home game against England tonight.
Wales though, will be smarting from missing a chance to equal the Six Nations record of nine wins in a row jointly held by France and England.
Head coach Warren Gatland made one change from the side that accounted for England a fortnight ago, recalling fit-again wing Shane Williams instead of Mark Jones.
And there was also a place on the bench for Williams' Ospreys colleague Gavin Henson, who recovered from calf muscle trouble to make a possible first Test match appearance since Wales' Six Nations title-clinching victory over France last season.
Given Lievremont's erratic selection policy, no-one quite knew what to expect from Les Bleus, and the opening flurries went Wales' way. Wales kept a solid defensive line and forced errors from a Les Bleus outfit whose anxiety in attack inevitably produced mistakes.
Wales centre Tom Shanklin took out the France 8, Imanol Harinordoquy, in mid-air, but, as the crowd bayed for a caution, South African referee Mark Lawrence opted for a lecture to Shanklin and Wales captain Ryan Jones instead.
France were charged by the incident and their forwards stormed upfield, creating a powerful attacking platform from which they were narrowly denied a try.
Hooker Dimitri Szarzewski crashed over the line, but the video referee ruled he had failed to ground possession and Wales escaped.
The visitors needed to reassert themselves in the contest, and they delivered a devastating answer just when questions began to surface.
A spell of pressure produced a stunning result when fly-half Jones' defence-splitting pass found Byrne, whose exquisite timing of his run allowed him an unopposed 30-metre dash for glory.
Wales had waited patiently for the moment – in stark contrast to a French huff and puff approach – and Jones' conversion made it 13-3 early in the second quarter.
Parra cut the deficit six minutes before the break, finding his range with an angled 30-metre strike, yet Les Bleus piled pressure on themselves almost from the restart. Parra's awful pass to Baby put the rookie fly-half under intolerable pressure, and he did not reappear from the ensuing melee. Wales' marauding tacklers engulfed him, and Baby limped out of the action to be replaced by Montpellier's Francois Trinh-Duc.
It was an inglorious exit for a player poorly selected by Lievremont, yet Wales conceded a try on the stroke of half-time that would have infuriated head coach Gatland.
The visitors seemed to be caught napping as the French forwards rushed into Wales' 22, and Dusautoir claimed a try that Parra converted to make it 13-13 at the break.
Wales' off-colour appearance continued after the break, but they enjoyed a reprieve when Parra rifled a straightforward penalty chance wide. But Wales continued to be stretched, and they were breached again after 52 minutes when slick passing and incisive running resulted in a try for Heymans.
Parra's conversion attempt rebounded off the post, and it proved the cue for three Wales substitutions as Henson, scrum-half Dwayne Peel and hooker Huw Bennett joined the action.
Henson replaced Jamie Roberts at inside centre, and he was immediately smashed by a crunching tackle that underlined France's appetite for the battle.
Wales could rarely escape from inside their own half, and, when Parra completed his penalty hat-trick ten minutes from time, there was no way back into the contest, despite a last-gasp flurry.
Lievremont hails victory that went 'against logic'
FRANCE head coach Marc Lievremont felt his side's 21-16 victory over Wales in Paris "went against all logic".
Les Bleus ended Welsh Grand Slam hopes with a dogged display at the Stade de France, coming back from 13-3 down to claim a famous win that keeps them in the hunt for the title.
France's build-up to the match was affected by short preparation time – most of their players featured for their clubs in the Top 14 last weekend – as well as an injury to Lionel Beauxis, which led to Benoit Baby being played out of position at fly-half.
But they triumphed against the odds. "I am extremely proud of the team. We proved we are hard-working and our fight was exceptional," said Lievremont.
"It's always difficult to play as underdogs but we played very well. The victory went against all logic seeing our complicated preparation with just five days training – we can't do that every time. But the players proved they are capable of playing at this level of intensity. We raised the bar. We need to string results like this together now."
France, defeated by Ireland in their opening Six Nations match and unconvincing winners against Scotland a fortnight ago, found incredible energy levels in a second half they dominated.
They held the whip hand up front and hung on in a rip-roaring finale, conceding just three points to substitute James Hook while under pressure in the final 10 minutes.
"We were 13-3 down and it was complicated but the players dug in. Our defence was total and it was a great performance in terms of our tactical control.
"Sometimes we are affected by journalists saying we can only play wide but we showed we can play down the middle as well."
Warren Gatland, who was tasting his first Six Nations defeat as Wales coach, felt his side had paid the price for too many individual errors.
"There were too many mistakes," he said. "At the end of it we have to give the French full credit. We have no excuses – the better team won."
Scorers: France: Tries: Dusautoir, Heymans. Cons: Parra. Pens: Parra 3. Wales: Tries: Byrne. Cons: S. Jones. Pens: S. Jones 2, Hook.
France: Medard; Malzieu, Bastareaud, Jauzion, Heymans; Baby, Parra; Barcella, Szarzewski, Marconnet, Nallet, Chabal, Dusautoir, Ouedraogo, Harinordoquy. Subs: Trinh-Duc for Baby (37), Tillous-Borde for Parra (72), Kayser for Szarzewski (65), Domingo for Marconnet (57), Millo-Chluski for Chabal (57).
Wales: Byrne; Halfpenny, Shanklin, Roberts, S Williams; S Jones, Phillips, Jenkins, Rees, A Jones, Gough, A Jones, R Jones, M. Williams, Powell. Subs: Henson for Roberts (55), Hook for S Jones (70), Peel for Phillips (55), Bennett for Rees (55), Charteris for Gough (71).
Referee: M Lawrence (South Africa). Attendance: 80,000
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