9:58pm Friday 21st February 2014
By Chris Kirwan
WALES 27 FRANCE 6
WALES enjoyed Six Nations déjà vu by following a humbling at the hands of the Irish with a much-needed, character-filled triumph against France.
Just like in 2013, it was backs to the wall time against Les Bleus after being turned over by Ireland. And just like in Paris, they responded.
They were in command throughout at the Millennium Stadium to get their championship defence back on track following their 26-3 thumping in Dublin.
Tries by George North and skipper Sam Warburton and the kicking of Leigh Halfpenny ensured that there was not the tight finish that most expected.
Whether it proves to be a victory that results in a historic hat-trick of titles is unlikely because of the points difference but it keeps them in the race, especially if England turn over the Irish at Twickenham.
The success was achieved with classic ‘Warrenball’ – carrying hard, kicking deep, winning the collisions and defending with steel for a hat-trick of clean sheets against the French in the tournament.
When the game plan works, boy does it work.
That is not to say that it was a perfect performance up there with the destruction of England last year – and Grand Slam-chasing France were pretty uninspired – but it was a professional one thanks to a dream start.
Wounded by their Dublin experience there were huge performances by Jamie Roberts and North with ball in hand in midfield, Taulupe Faletau was (as usual) everywhere and Warburton was immense.
Wales played with great intensity to build a lead then kept winning the collisions to prevent France from eating into it.
The Welsh experience of Friday night rugby in the Six Nations had been a miserable one; traffic chaos to get to and from the game and then the whole of the weekend to stew over a frustrating result.
But not this time – at the fourth time of asking Wales enjoyed victory on a Vendredi, able to enjoy the Samedi matches with a smile.
Yet there had been a feeling of dread from the moment that rumours of an injury to Alun Wyn Jones started spreading in the afternoon.
The talismanic lock was officially ruled out an hour before kick-off leading to Jake Ball getting a first Test start and Dragons skipper Andrew Coombs, pencilled in to lead from the front against Glasgow on Sunday, promoted to the bench.
Jones’ absence was a monumental pre-match blow given that the Welsh pack was dismantled by Ireland in Dublin.
No longer did tighthead Adam Jones, himself under pressure to produce a big display, have the Lions man’s shoulder on his left cheek. No longer did the lineout have its general. No longer did Wales have arguably their most natural captain.
But Ball produced a fine performance and the rest of the pack – the under-fire front row and off-colour flankers – stood tall.
It took 55 minutes for Wales to score their only points in Dublin but that tally had been surpassed after just five minutes against Les Bleus.
First Leigh Halfpenny settled the nerves with a beautifully struck penalty after Yannick Nyanga failed to roll away from a tackle after just 30 seconds and then centre George North pounced on a spilled ball after Brice Dulin and Jean-Marc Doussain collided when tracking back to cover a kick over the top by the Wales full-back.
Halfpenny pulled the conversion horridly but made amends with a 10th-minute penalty to make it 11-0... just the tonic after the pre-match blow.
France felt they had chipped into the lead when Yoann Huget finished smartly only for a knock on by lock Pascal Pape when tackling Rhys Priestland to see the score chalked off; referee Alain Rolland went from pre-match panto villain to Buttons.
Penalties by Doussain and fly-half Jules Plisson were bettered by a Halfpenny trio and it was 20-6 at the break.
A 14-point buffer was a handy one against a French side that were showing precious little imagination in attack and were shaky from the kicking tee.
The visitors were on the front foot in the second half and it took a fine last-ditch tackle by fly-half Rhys Priestland to save North’s bacon when his lapse allowed Mathieu Bastareaud to go on the charge.
Wales headed into the final quarter with their 20-6 lead intact against a France side that had not crossed their whitewash since 2011.
And it was game over in the 64th-minute when Roberts went on the charge and Warburton stretched over from close range.
Wales: L Halfpenny (J Hook 70), A Cuthbert, G North, J Roberts, L Williams, R Priestland (D Biggar 70), R Webb (M Phillips 70), G Jenkins, R Hibbard (K Owens 56), A Jones (R Jones 70), L Charteris, J Ball (A Coombs 70), D Lydiate (P James 50-62, J Tipuric 70), S Warburton (captain), T Faletau.
Scorers: tries – G North, S Warburton; conversion – L Halfpenny; penalties – L Halfpenny (5)
Yellow card: G Jenkins
France: B Dulin, Y Huget, M Bastareaud (G Fickou 70), W Fofana, H Bonneval, J Plisson (R Tales 63), J-M Doussain (M Machenaud 40), T Domingo (Y Forestier 63), D Szarzewski (B Mach 63), N Mas, P Pape (captain), Y Maestri (S Vahaamahina 63), Y Nyanga (V Debaty 50, D Chouly 62), W Lauret, L Picamoles.
Scorers: penalties – J-M Doussain, J Plisson
Yellow card: N Mas, L Picamoles
Referee: Alain Rolland (Ireland)
Argus star man: Sam Warburton
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