REIGNING champions Wales put their RBS Six Nations title bid back on track last night with a Millennium Stadium mauling of France that ended Les Bleus’ Grand Slam hopes.
Wales were transformed from the side left battered and bruised by Ireland 13 days ago, never looking back once an early George North try and five Leigh Halfpenny penalties put them 14 points clear at half-time.
It did not improve for France after the break either, as Wales powered home 27-6 – a record Six Nations win against Les Bleus – after skipper Sam Warburton touched down, with Halfpenny’s conversion giving him a 17-point haul.
Woeful France could only manage penalties by Jean-Marc Doussain and Jules Plisson in reply, while they had two forwards – prop Nicolas Mas and number eight Louis Picamoles – sin-binned during the second period.
Wales, having revived their hopes of achieving an unprecedented Six Nations title hat-trick, now move on to tackle England at Twickenham in 15 days’ time. And coach Warren Gatland will be thrilled that his players responded from the Dublin debacle in such devastating fashion, taking charge of the game early on and never loosening their grip on the contest.
France offered next to nothing in reply, but they were not allowed to as Wales tackled and harried them out of their stride and served notice that they still mean business in a championship that looked to have passed them by only a short time ago.
And they even achieved it without lock Alun-Wyn Jones, who was forced out due to a foot infection and replaced by the Scarlets’ Jake Ball, which meant Ball and scrum-half Rhys Webb made their first Wales starts.
Unbeaten France showed just one change from the side that accounted for Italy 12 days ago, with Racing Metro flanker Wenceslas Lauret taking over from an injured Bernard Le Roux.
Gatland had put his cards on the table this week with regards to future selection following the Ireland drubbing, with players left in no doubt that they needed to perform.
And Gatland got an immediate response as Wales stormed eight points clear inside six minutes through a Halfpenny penalty and North’s try.
Halfpenny opened the scoring through a 48-metre strike, then Wales attacked from deep via Halfpenny and wing Liam Williams before North capitalised on defensive hesitancy between Doussain and France full-back Brice Dulin to pounce for the touchdown.
Halfpenny missed the conversion attempt, but he quickly made amends by landing another long-range penalty and Wales could reflect on a dream start, leading 11-0 after just nine minutes.
France looked as though they had cut the deficit when wing Yoann Huget danced his way over Wales’ line, but play was called back following a knock-on by Les Bleus skipper Pascal Pape as he tackled Wales fly-half Rhys Priestland, and the home side escaped.
Doussain and Halfpenny then exchanged penalties, but after Doussain missed his next shot at goal, half-back partner Plisson took over and cut the gap with a penalty to 14-6.
Wales continued to look dangerous through the attacking midfield channels, with North prominent, while they were far more combative and productive at the critical
breakdown area than they had been in Dublin almost a fortnight ago.
A fourth Halfpenny penalty soon after restored Wales’ 11-point advantage, and France coach Philippe Saint-Andre must have been left infuriated by his team’s technical indiscipline as Halfpenny booted another three-pointer just before the break for a 20-6 interval advantage. Saint-Andre replaced an ineffective Doussain with Maxime Machenaud for the second period, but France could still make little headway as Wales continued to boss the physical exchanges.
Referee Alain Rolland readily awarded penalties to both sides, especially on the back of some shambolic set-scrums, and Wales appeared in little danger until a trademark charge from French midfield powerhouse Mathieu Bastareaud almot breached their defence.
Rolland’s patience at scrum-time then expired when one more collapse resulted in him sin-binning rival props Gethin Jenkins and Nicolas Mas, leaving both sides temporarily down to 14 men.
Picamoles departed almost as Mas returned, and then Warburton stretched out to score, sealing the victory and serving notice that Wales are well and truly back.
Scorers: Wales: Tries: North, Warburton; Cons: Halfpenny; Pens: Halfpenny 5. France: Pens: Doussain, Plisson
Wales: Halfpenny; Cuthbert, North, Roberts, L. Williams; Priestland, Webb; Jenkins, Hibbard, A. Jones, Charteris, Ball, Lydiate, Warburton, Faletau. Subs: Hook for Halfpenny (70), Biggar for Priestland (70), M. Phillips for Webb (70), James for Jenkins (70), Owens for Hibbard (56), R. Jones for A. Jones (70), Coombs for Ball (70), Tipuric for Lydiate (70).
France: Dulin; Huget, Bastareaud, Fofana, Bonneval; Plisson, Doussain, Domingo, Szarzewski, Mas, Pape, Maestri, Nyanga, Lauret, Picamoles, Debaty. Subs: Fickou for Bastareaud (70), Tales for Plisson (63), Machenaud for Doussain (41), Forestier for Domingo (63), Mach for Szarzewski (63), Vahaamahina for Maestri (63), Debaty for Nyanga (50), Chouly for Debaty (62).