North try sees France hopes go south
Wales wing George North dives over to score during their Six Nations victory at the Stade de France in Saint-Denis near Paris, on Saturday evening. photograph: gonzalo fuentes/reuters
France 6 Wales 16Wales 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.
Ended in failure
“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-Andre is playing Frederic 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 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.
Saint-Andre 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.
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.