Wales stayed in the Six Nations title hunt by beating France on Saturday for a fourth straight time – while the French still look no closer to being competitive.
Scorers: France: Try: Dulin. Con: Lopez. Pens: Lopez (2). Wales: Try: Biggar. Pens: Halfpenny (5) .
A well-worked try finished by stand-off Dan Biggar, and full-back Leigh Halfpenny’s near-faultless goalkicking helped Wales win four in a row against the French for the first time since the 1950s.
“We talked about four wins in a row,” Wales coach Warren Gatland said. “We had the potential to create something special. Experience and composure got us over the line.”
The Welsh have rebounded from their opening loss to England with wins at Murrayfield and Stade de France. They will cross fingers that Ireland beat England today, because the Welsh meet the Irish next, at Cardiff in two weeks.
“We were written off by a lot of people [after the defeat against England], and now we’re back in contention,” Gatland said. “The better team deserved to win.”
France, who have beaten Scotland and lost in Ireland, have to find a way to eradicate sloppy errors because the pressure is mounting on coach Philippe Saint-Andre with the Rugby World Cup in six months.
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“We took too long to get our game going. You can’t spend your time defending in international rugby,” Saint-Andre said. “The only thing we can do now is lift our heads and work. We were lacking too much to win the game today... we gave away incredibly stupid penalties.”
France have a tricky away game in Italy, and then go to England.
“You can’t say we’re a great team at the moment. Some of our players struggle to last 80 minutes, and we know that,” Saint-Andre said. “You have to congratulate Wales. They were pragmatic, and we’re not at the moment.”
Wales made the key breakthrough off a scrum with about 20 minutes remaining. Scrum-half Rhys Webb offloaded to flanker Dan Lydiate, who coped well with a low pass, and from his neat flick Biggar speared into the right corner.
France squandered three out of five penalty kicks. But from 17-6 down, they made Wales work hard as full-back Brice Dulin scored France’s second try of the tournament, and first against Wales in five matches.
“We haven’t beaten the good teams for a while and it’s a failure for us,” France captain Thierry Dusautoir said. “We were very vulnerable in the first half.”
At 3-3, France lost centre Remi Lamerat, but the crowd cheered anyway as the burly Mathieu Bastareaud replaced him. He, at least, helped France to contain the rampaging runs of Jamie Roberts.
After Halfpenny made it 6-3, France finally showed some gusto, and stand-off Camille Lopez sent Yoann Huget flying into the right corner, only for the try to be ruled out because of Lopez’s forward pass.
With the game finally opening up, George North, who yesterday became the youngest ever player to 50 Tests at 22, went close for Wales.
Lopez, whose goalkicking has been suspect, missed just before the break. Morgan Parra took over the kicking, but a minute into the second half he missed as well. Lopez was reinstated and converted a simple effort to make it 6-6.
When Halfpenny made it 9-6, France swapped its entire front row, and Saint-Andre hauled off Parra, replacing him with Sebastien Tillous-Borde.
But Wales stepped up the tempo and Biggar did the rest. Halfpenny slipped going for the extras, wide on the right, but shortly after he put Wales comfortably in charge at 17-6.
Moments later, France drove up the middle, Lopez’s long looping pass found Dulin, and he wriggled free down the left. Lopez found his kicking range to convert from a tight angle to make it 17-13 and set up a tense finish for Wales.
Halfpenny, cool as ever, soon calmed those nerves.
France: B Dulin; Y Huget, R Lamerat (Bastareaud 17), W Fofana (Tales 70), S Guitoune; C Lopez, M Parra (Tillous-Borde 52); E Ben Arous (De baty 52), G Guirado (Kasyer 52), R Slimani (Antonio 52), R Taofifenua (Suta 61), Y Maestri, T Dusautoir (capt), B Le Roux, D Chouly (Goujon 74).
Wales: L Halfpenny; G North, J Davies, J Roberts, L Williams; D Biggar (Priestland 74), R Webb; G Jenkins (James 71), S Baldwin (Hibbard 70), S Lee (Jarvis 79), L Charteris (B Davis 70), A-W Jones, D Lydiat, S Warburton (capt) (Tipuric 70),
Referee: Jaco Peyper (South Africa). Attendance: 80,000.