Wales v France: Six Nations Round 3

This was the one that everyone wanted to see this weekend, and which was widely anticipated by all. Defending champions Wales hosting in-form France – there was bound to be some outstanding rugby played, and, sure enough, it did not disappoint.

France started the game really well, and pushed Wales back into their own half with a lot of force, and that was evidently their game plan initially. In fact, France got their first try when Wales made an error claiming the ball in the air, and this let full-back Anthony Bouthier, who has been one of their standout players in the tournament so far, through to score in a relatively easy fashion. There was no defence available to stop him, and it was poor from the home side in all honesty, but really good anticipation from France in ensuring they won the ball and made Wales pay.

If Wales thought this was bad, then it was only just starting. Their poor passing meant France were making interceptions all over the place, and wing Teddy Thomas was a notable thorn in the Welsh side in the first half, creating havoc for their defence. Wales lacked a lot of composure, and they didn’t look to have recovered from their loss in Dublin two weeks ago, which was a problem for them, but exactly what France needed.

Les Bleues were flying in the first 40 minutes as an overall performance, and they were particularly good at moving the ball quickly and seeing the spaces in which to get it too. They could and maybe should have had a second try before 15 minutes had registered on the clock – that’s how dominant they were.

But the most impressive thing about France was something Wales will be really annoyed about. The French defence was simply immaculate. It was brick wall, and Wales had a lot of trouble breaking it down. Now, if you don’t know the story behind this, then France’s defence coach is Shaun Edwards – who was Warren Gatland’s defence coach for Wales up until the end of the World Cup when Gatland stepped down. So Wales knew about his coaching and tactics, and yet France stood firm against them.

There was one moment where France were incredibly unlucky to not get their second try of the game, with one of the best team moves of the tournament so far. It involved the play being switched around, not just in terms of diagonal passes and runs into different areas, but also moving the ball from wing to wing, right across the width of the pitch. In the end, it was Gael Fickou, playing on the wing in this one instead of his usual position of centre, due to an injury to Vincent Rattez, who got the try. However, amongst the move, there had been a marginal forward pass, but it really deserved to be a try with the quality that France were showing. It was the best rugby any team had played so far in this tournament, and would have been a contender for goal of the season if it had stood.

Eventually, though, they did get their second try. It came from a lineout, and France decided not to maul from it, and instead to spin around the front of the lineout setup, and put the ball down, and it caught Wales out. France were absolutely on top and doing exactly what Wales didn’t expect them to do, and it was working.

In the second half, France began well again. Two of their most creative players, scrum-half Antoine Dupont and fly-half Romain Ntamack, were pulling the strings in the middle of the pitch and really playing well. The interesting thing about these two is that they play in different ways in this orchestration, but complement each other. Whilst Dupont does the running forwards to create gaps for his teammates to get into, Ntamack is the one who puts the kicks up and allows others to get forwards that way. He is also the assured player who gathers loose balls at the back, before getting it forward again.

It was Ntamack’s interception that changed the second half in France’s favour, because up until then it had been Wales who had taken control of the second 40 minutes. It was a deserved try for him as well, given his performance in the match. It came because Wales were trying to play quick passes, but Ntamack made the interception to run through and score from inside his own half, and Wales just didn’t seem to see him.

There was a debatable moment when France went for a tackle on their own line, but knocked the ball forwards in the process. Some thought it was a penalty try, some thought it was simply that the player was going for the tackle, but in my opinion, I thought the referee made the right call in saying it was a tackle. If you watch Paul Willemse’s eyes, you can see he wasn’t looking at the ball, and his arms were in the shape of a tackle, so it could be argued the other way, but that was my view.

As for Wales, it seemed to be another bad day at the office for them. Their error count was really high, and that was what was their ultimate downfall. Their defence had some big problems in the early stages, particularly with gathering the ball in the air. Full-back Leigh Halfpenny is normally as safe pair of hands, but he was the one having the most problems. Unfortunately, because of this, it left the space behind Halfpenny completely undefended, and that was why Bouthier was able to get the ball and run through virtually unopposed for France’s first try.

Wales also conceded a lot of penalties at breakdown situations, and that also gave France the chances they wanted to get the ball forward a lot, and continually push Wales backwards. All of this together is the reason why France had such a commanding lead at half-time, and everything Wales tried just wasn’t working for them.

But when the second half came around, Wales did manage to get themselves going, and their first try came from a surprisingly agile move given that it was a prop who scored. Dillon Lewis has never scored for his country before; now he has. He played an excellent dummy, which completely fooled the French defence, and created the gap for him to go over for his first ever Wales try.

Ultimately, though, it was the continuous errors that gave them the most problems. Their main issue was that, when they were attacking, they kept kicking forwards, which is fine, but had no players chasing it, or it was too long, so France just had to gather the ball up and kick it straight back into the Welsh half. It got Wales nowhere.

Wales will also be concerned about the injury to star winger Josh Adams in the final stages of the game, because George North had also had to depart the game in the first half due to a head injury. I think they will be happy to have next weekend off, so that they can assess both players and hopefully have them fit for Round 4 in a couple of weeks time.

Credit where it is due though, Wales did get themselves a second try to set up a nervy finish for France, when Dan Biggar went over after some good pressure was applied on the French defence, and this showed that, despite being excellent throughout, France still have a couple of things to sort out before Round 4. The try certainly spiced things up, and Biggar as an individual certainly needed the try, because he had had a personally frustrating second half where nothing seemed to be going for him. Overall, though, Wales have now got back-to-back losses to two title contenders, so it is looking like they will not be holding onto the title at the end of the tournament.

MAN OF THE MATCH:

France had plenty of good performances, from the likes of Willemse (aside from his “was it, wasn’t it” tackle moment), Dupont and Fickou, but there was only one player who deserved the MOTM award for this one; Romain Ntamack. He was quite simply everywhere, scored a try, created moves for others, and kicked superbly throughout as well. It was a five-star performance from the fly-half.

NEXT UP:

It’s another break for the Six Nations next weekend, but in two weeks time, Wales are on the road again, when they travel to Twickenham to face a rejuvenated England side who have got back-to-back victories. That match is on Saturday evening. France meanwhile will be on the road as well, when they travel to Murrayfield to face Scotland on Sunday afternoon.

 

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