Supporting Wales in this year’s RBS 6 Nations tournament is surely bad for the heart.
To date, each match has followed the same pattern: Wales start badly, committing error after error, before getting their act together in the second half and looking like a side worthy of the Championship. In today’s match against France this pattern continued. Wales lost by six points after trailing 20-0 at half time at home in the Millennium Stadium.
The Welsh team did enough to win this match.
France were handed two tries via interceptions along with seven penalties – two of which were kicked – in a first forty minutes which would otherwise have seen few points.
While the French forwards ran the first half and were worthy of their lead, the twenty point margin they enjoyed courtesy of two converted tries which Warren Gatland called, somewhat diplomatically, “soft” after the final whistle was certainly more than the visiting team deserved.
The France front eight – perhaps the best in the world – made the Welsh pack look ordinary, lightweight, even, at times when they counter-rucked and, in particular, in the scrummage. Despite this, Wales led the turnover count by three to one, and had enough possession (almost 50:50) and territory to be closer on the scoreboard when the referee blew for half time.
Wales had begun better than of late, with some positive play, before James Hook threw a horrible pass straight to Alexis Pallison who was clean through when intercepting. The French winger sprinted clear before touching down under the posts. The kick was a formality.
Two penalties followed, one of which looked a little harsh on Wales, to take the French score forward by a further six points. Parra showed a cool head to strike each cleanly as ever.
The first half was summed up on around 30 minutes, when Wales worked themselves a free-kick deep in the French 22 with the score at 13-0 France. Wales opted for another scrummage, and their pack collapsed under a strong French hit. Penalty France. Wales were back to half way from a commanding position.
The half should have finished at this scoreline, though, as France did not look like scoring when Shane Williams tried to run out of defence and threw a pass from the ground straight to French stand-off Francois Trinh-Duc, who jogged home with the clock nearing 40. Parra knocked over the straightforward conversion – his fourth kick from four.
At half time, no-one in the ground held out much hope of the same spirited come-back rugby that Wales had shown against England and, with notably more success, Scotland in their previous two matches. Within minutes of the restart, however, a much more purposeful Wales side had driven their way to three points following good work from the forwards.
Another Stephen Jones penalty sparked a little more life into the home support soon after, before Leigh Halfpenny lifted the Millennium Stadium roof by touching down right in the corner after good forward work and quick passing out wide had created an overlap. This try, however, came five minutes after Lee Byrne, the Welsh full-back, had committed a cardinal sin in the corner of the pitch by kicking a penalty dead from 20 metres. The error had come when Wales were in the ascendancy, and it looked like it could have knocked the fight out of the men in red before the try went over.
During the scoring of the try, the referee had spotted French scrum-half, Parra, attempting to swat the ball out of Welsh hands – which resulted in a deliberate knock-on. As France had been warned about their now constant misbehaviour, the blue half-back was yellow carded for the infringement. With eighteen minutes remaining, Stephen Jones’ perfectly struck successful conversion from wide meant that Wales had just one converted try to score to make up the ground they had lost in the first half, against a team with one man in the sin bin.
Wales had chances to score this try: first when a good grubber from Shane Williams put James Hook, who’s intercepted pass had been at fault for France’s opener, through. The Welsh centre tied in his man and looked to his right for support, where he might have been a little disappointed to see not Halfpenny, but Luke Charteris, the 6 foot 9 inch replacement second row. Maybe it was this that put off the Welshman, but his pass was well off its mark – even with the wingspan Charteris has, he could not catch the ball, and the big man knocked-on. This was a shame for the lock, as he had enjoyed one of the best displays of any in a Wales shirt.
Another Welsh error at a key moment would soon follow when Sebastian Chabal – on soon after the Welsh try – committed one of his trademark acts of ill-discipline at the breakdown by dipping a large flipper into the ruck unfairly. Lee Byrne’s touch finding form, unfortunately for the home supporters, once again deserted him, however, and his penalty was caught in play. Another huge wasted opportunity was soon hammered home when Wales began giving away penalties: two in quick succession saw them worked up the pitch before Michalak cooly slotted a long kick over to take the lead to ten points – 23-13.
Another French penalty would effectively seal the match with two minutes remaining when Wales were adjudged to be offside deep in their 22. Parra, now restored to the pitch, made light work once more before Wales, through Shane Williams, gave home fans something to cheer about – and a close margin to lament – by dancing his way to score in the corner.
Though Stephen Jones took his super-quick kick, and scored by the skin of his teeth off the post, the clock had still gone beyond 80 when France were to take their restart. Les Bleus showed their composure and Michalak hammered the ball straight out of play to the sound of the referee’s whistle – and jeers from the Welsh support.
France are still on course for their Grand Slam – which they should, in theory, now claim with only home matches versus Italy and England remaining – but they must realise how very close they came to coming unstuck today. Even having thrown the ball away for 14 points in the first half, Wales should have been level when Parra came back from his break with just under ten minutes remaining: the way France were buckling under Welsh pressure surely pointing to the fact that, had they got level, the match was at their mercy.
Gatland and his men must once again scratch their heads about a chronic lack of class early in the match. Wales gave away penalty after penalty – including when in good attacking positions – in the first half. They were once again guilty of monumentally ruining things for themselves – as against Scotland – by giving away tries through child-like errors.
At times today Welsh handling was dreadful. If only they could start a match at half-time, Wales would be looking at a Grand Slam, not France, but rugby has been played over eighty minutes for a long, long time now, and France had the quality to win with a little in hand today and – thanks, largely, to Wales’ dismal first half display – were not required to stretch themselves in attack at any stage of the game.
There were signs today, however, that France have a couple of chinks in their armour. England’s Danny Care may have watched how well Richie Rees got under Morgan Parra’s skin this evening – the French scrum-half made a few poor decisions this evening when under pressure, including kicking the ball out on the full with an ill-advised chip when a pass to hands seemed much more appropriate. England will have to overcome the Irish tomorrow to go to France needing a result, but will surely feel the Welsh have shown them that this blitz defence is at least beatable.
Wales’ RBS 6 Nations is over, though, and their fans must walk or drive home from Cardiff feeling extremely frustrated about what might have been in 2010 after having witnessed yet another heart stopping performance that let itself down before even getting started: to lose by a margin probably better than knowing you are the best team at the end of the game, and still losing.