The headline game of the weekend definitely lived up to expectations, providing us with entertaining rugby of the highest quality at times. Wales knew that a win was all they needed to confirm the Grand Slam and seal the Six Nations title, whereas France knew that a victory for them would take the title race to their last game, against Scotland on Friday night, so both sides had plenty to play for.
France had plenty of creativity in attack, with fly-half Matthieu Jalibert directing play, on one occasion kicking the ball over the Welsh defence and running through to meet it, before setting up star scrum-half Antoine Dupont to score their opening try under the posts. This showed how their aim was to break Wales down by playing over and around their defence, looking to take advantage every time the away side left a gap open. Creative attacking is something we have come to associate Les Bleus with, and it is a big part of their new rugby identity at the moment.
In defence, they stepped up to meet the ball early, rather than waiting for Wales to come to them. This ensured that Wales’ quick runners couldn’t play as we know they like to, running forwards with the ball at speed and with momentum. Therefore, again, this is another example of the preparation France had done beforehand, asking questions of Wales that they perhaps hadn’t been asked too often by the other teams.
In the second half, they looked to increase their attacking power, particularly in the back line, with centre Arthur Vincent replacing winger Teddy Thomas, who had not had his best game. This was because the French wingers, Thomas and Damian Penaud, were not getting the ball as often as needed, and it was picked out beforehand how the wings were going to be crucial for both sides; whichever side did use them better would likely win the game. Vincent also helped them to create a few more gaps after half-time as well, and gave France more of a threat in Wales’ half, almost scoring a couple of times as well. His arrival definitely added what they had needed a bit more of up to this point.
The red card for lock Paul Willemse was always going to make things tough defensively for them, but France were doing more attacking than defending in the closing stages, looking for a gap and moving the ball around quickly, and were unlucky not to score. Eventually, though, they did get the try they deserved, through captain and flanker Charles Ollivon, and this put pressure on both teams for different reasons, possibly led to France’s winning try from full-back Brice Dulin. Overall, France will be happy with the win, especially because their tactical plan allowed them to bring Wales’ march to a halt, which shows how good a side Les Bleus are at the moment.
As for Wales, they looked to get their heavy forwards crashing into the French defence as often as possible, testing their defensive robustness. This is because France’s defence has been the most impressive part of their team since Shaun Edwards took over as defence coach, and many have found it difficult to break it down. Therefore, Wales knew that, if they could find a way through, they could take early control of the game. They almost got their first try after creating a gap, but the ball was held up on the line. However, this showed how they were always looking to find space in France’s ranks. Wales attacked with this purpose throughout the first half, and France were forced to move across the pitch constantly, ensuring all spaces were covered.
In all honesty, it was end-to-end rugby from both sides, and both defences had to be strong and organised, because a lot of pressure was being applied by the opposing attackers. This is something we were expecting, given how both Wales and France have been the teams to watch this tournament in terms of quick play, moving the ball around, and scoring some really nice tries.
In the second half, a few cracks started to appear in Wales’ performance, as they struggled to make box kicks work, and this allowed France to make them play quicker, aiming to force the visitors into making mistakes. As a result, Wales decided to keep the ball on the ground and change the direction of their attacks all the time, hoping to find gaps to run through, although France did manage to hold firm, continually adapting to each new phase of play.
Wales were a bit lucky with their third try, as it looked like the ball was held up on the line by France, but their play to set up the try-scoring moment was excellent. A clever kick through from flanker Justin Tipuric, again demonstrating Wales’ ability to mix up their attacking approaches, allowed them to get the ball into the space behind, but France still got back to almost stop the try being scored, so this was not the breakthrough that led to Wales taking control of the game. However, it gave them some breathing space, and put more pressure on France to find a way to score in the closing stages of the game.
However, the pressure was actually being felt more by Wales, and they threw everything they had into stopping France scoring. This led to plenty of offences being committed, leading to yellow cards for full-back Liam Williams and number 8 Taulupe Faletau in the last ten minutes, and the visitors were continually being spoken to about their discipline. Indeed, it did appear that this was to blame for France scoring their late winning try through Dulin, because, with 13 players on the field, Wales didn’t have enough defensive cover to get across and block the full-back’s run off.
MAN OF THE MATCH:
This has to go to France full-back Brice Dulin. As well as being on the front foot throughout, almost scoring a few times in the game, and was instrumental in the closing stages of the game, pushing hard and being in the right place at the right time when his team needed him.
France will take their hopes of a first Six Nations title since 2010 to their last game, which is their rescheduled match with Scotland. This will take place on Friday night at the Stade de France.