Wales re-light their fire as lacklustre French fizzle out of contention

Wales had spent the week cursing their habit of starting matches as if they had just been woken in the middle of the night but a feature of their away victories in last season's grand slam was their ability to strike in the final 10 minutes when they sensed opponents were tiring.

Late tries helped them win in Dublin and Twickenham and so it was on a ground where they had not won for eight years. With the scores tied at 6-6 with eight minutes to go, it seemed that, if anything would separate the sides in a match of few chances and less inspiration, it would be a kick and, in one sense, it was.

When Dan Biggar saw France's midfield defenders rushing up in their 22, he chipped the ball behind them for George North to pick up and score. Suddenly a team that had started the day as one of the fancies for the wooden spoon was looking to the final match against England in Cardiff as a potential title decider.

The champions first have to win in Italy and Scotland but Wales will go to Rome in the next round buoyed by a belief that had been steadily evaporating since they defeated France to win the grand slam in Cardiff last March and they are never more dangerous than when they feel the wind is at their backs.

"This has to be one of the best victories we have had as a squad," said the scrum-half Mike Phillips, whose three previous trips to Paris had ended in failure. "We had been on a losing run but we knew we were not far away from turning it around. International rugby is a tough world: one minute you are a hero and the next you are rubbish. You have to stay strong. Who knows what can happen in the Six Nations now? We are the defending champions and we will keep going until the end."

Wales's victory was based on defence. They had not kept their line intact since defeating Les Bleus 11 months before but France had been unable to score a try against them in the 2011 World Cup semi-final despite playing for an hour against 14 men and as a side in recent years they have betrayed their heritage of handling, passing and support play.

While France defended strongly, using the big centre Mathieu Bastareaud to roam the field and knock down one of Wales's big target runners, their use of the ball was appalling. If there is a reason why Philippe Saint-André is playing Frédéric Michalak at outside-half when he has spent most of the season partnering Jonny Wilkinson at Toulon at scrum-half, it is the equivalent of a fiendishly difficult crossword clue.Michalak looked, if not clueless, ill-suited to orchestrating a back line given no time or space by Wales's defence.

France have gone five matches in the Six Nations – three at home – without a victory and not since 1982 had they lost their opening two matches in the tournament. Next they face England at Twickenham. Saint-André talked about the need to be precise and to show desire but he is wasting Wesley Fofana on the wing and France looked overly structured against Wales without being cohesive.

With so little flow, it was not a match to suit the skills of the Wales open-side Justin Tipuric, but he headed his side's tackle count and was used surprisingly often as a line-out target. If Sam Warburton, the Wales captain who missed the victory because of a shoulder injury, is fit for selection next week, the interim head coach Robert Howley will have a dilemma.

Ryan Jones led Wales impressively, the figure of authority France lacked with Thierry Dusautoir muted since his return this month. Howley is in charge of Wales while Warren Gatland focuses on the Lions but, given that omitting Warburton would have an impact on Wales beyond the Six Nations, Gatland would surely have a say.

Wales and Scotland gave Gatland more cheer than they did on the opening day but it has been a Six Nations so far when most of the time the favourites have struggled to cope with expectation. That may give France a hope at Twickenham but their best chance would be if they started playing like France again rather than a paler shade of white.

France Huget; Fofana, Bastareaud, Mermoz (Fritz, 76), Fall (Trinh-Duc, h-t); Michalak, Machenaud (Parra, 54); Forestier (Debaty, 50), Szarzewski (Kayser, 50), Mas (Ducalcon, 54), Suta (Taofifenua, 65), Maestri, Ouedraogo (Chouly, 51), Dusautoir (capt), Picamoles.

Pens Michalak 2.

Wales Halfpenny; Cuthbert, Davies, Roberts (S Williams, 78), North; Biggar, Phillips (Williams, 70); Jenkins (James, 58), Hibbard (Owens, 54), A Jones (Mitchell, 78), Coombs, Evans (Reed, 78), R Jones (capt; Shingler, 78), Tipuric, Faletau.

Try North Con Halfpenny Pens Halfpenny 3.

Referee G Clancy (Ireland) Attendance 80,000

Powered by article was written by Paul Rees at Stade de France, for The Guardian on Sunday 10th February 2013 22.00 Europe/London © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010


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