FRANCE 6 WALES 16
‘DU Coq à l’âne’ screamed L’Equipe today: from cockerel to donkey.
After enduring eight Tests without success, the Welsh camp would find it easy to sympathise with their French counterparts as they cop the flak.
Yet in the bowels of the Stade de France on Saturday night the players, smiling but aching, were able to fulfill their post-match press duties without having to talk about the positives of a battling performance in defeat.
The monkey was off their back; the 2012 Grand Slammers had finally made it over the line.
‘We haven’t become a bad team overnight,’ has been the mantra over the past week or so and they proved it with a hard-earned, ugly win secured by pure bloody-mindedness in defence.
In truth the Six Nations champions produced a display in Paris that failed to answer many of the questions being thrown at them.
The skill level was poor in a stinker of a game and Wales still have problems with their spluttering attack, reliant on brutish methods rather than joyful craft.
Yet they crucially secured the win, their biggest in the French capital since 1975, and ANY success in Paris is to be toasted.
It is a victory that provides a platform to build on in Rome and Edinburgh and its importance was not lost on a man who has seen it all.
“To triumph in a place like this has to be one of the best victories we have had as a squad,” said scrum-half Mike Phillips afterwards.
France, who headed into the tournament as favourites following a terrific autumn, were jaw-droppingly bad.
For a country with the players that they have at their disposal to be so tame, rudderless and sloppy is incredible.
But Wales won’t worry that Philippe Saint-Andre is getting his selection wrong and that he is wasting the talents of Morgan Parra and Wesley Fofana.
They had to dig deep and win ugly. It was a victory earned by defence and discipline, much to the delight of Shaun Edwards as he hailed a third clean sheet in a row against Les Bleus.
Knowing that France’s solitary threat was the driving lineout they made sure that they were squeaky clean, ensuring that referee George Clancy wasn’t able to blow for a penalty that would pin them close to their line.
Thankfully the French created just two openings of real note – a botched two-on-one in the first half when Fofana had a clear route to the line and a bout of pressure in the second when Francois Trinh-Duc mystifyingly went for a drop goal.
Wales were just as lacking in invention, relying on the crash, bang, wallop of Jamie Roberts, Jonathan Davies and George North.
There’s still a lack of flair in the side – surely James Hook must be accommodated? – but there was no shortage of guts with skipper Ryan Jones to the fore.
The flanker was inspirational with a performance that must put a question mark next to the captaincy of Sam Warburton.
The openside may struggle to get his number 7 jersey back from Justin Tipuric and he could also find it hard to be the man leading the team out of the tunnel in Rome.
If Jones was immense then Newport Gwent Dragons lock Andrew Coombs wasn’t far behind with a second all-action display on the bounce, making a mockery of the notoriously big leap in intensity from regional rugby to the Test scene.
Just weeks ago there was great anticipation over medical bulletins regarding second row Alun Wyn Jones, now the need doesn’t seem quite so pressing. The Ospreys ace, who returned from his shoulder injury last Friday, can be gently reintroduced from the bench at the Stadio Olimpico.
It was a game where good, honest graft was to the fore and a 6-6 draw looked probable as the two toothless teams entered the final ten minutes.
But then came a moment of class at odds with what had preceded it; Dan Biggar’s cute kick through enabling North to finish majestically in the left corner.
Wary of Les Bleus being stung into action, there was still work to be done but thankfully Wales have Leigh Halfpenny.
The full-back, who had traded penalties with the awful Frederic Michalak, coolly slotted from the touchline to earn a seven-point buffer and exactly 60 seconds later boomed over a penalty to seal the win.
The celebrations were wild and deserved at the full-time whistle, players hugging each other to the deafening soundtrack of French boos from the stands.
For ten months Wales have been the donkeys. They may not have rampaged around the Stade de France with the grace and beauty of Kauto Star but it’s a start.
France: Y Huget, W Fofana, M Bastareaud, M Mermoz (F Fritz 75), B Fall (F Trinh-duc 40), F Michalak, M Machenaud (M Parra 55), Y Forestier (V Debaty 50), D Szarzewski (B Kayser 50), N Mas (L Ducalcon 55), J Suta (R Taofifenua 65), Y Maestri, F Ouedraogo (D Chouly 51), T Dusautoir (captain), L Picamoles.
Scorers: penalties – F Michalak (2)
Wales: L Halfpenny, A Cuthbert, J Davies, J Roberts (S Williams 79), G North, D Biggar, M Phillips (L Williams 70), G Jenkins (P James 38-40, 58), R Hibbard (K Owens 55), A Jones (C Mitchell 79), A Coombs, I Evans (L Reed 79), R Jones (captain, A Shingler 79), J Tipuric, T Faletau.
Scorers: try – G North; conversion – L Halfpenny; penalties – L Halfpenny (3) Referee: George Clancy (Ireland)