Wales 23-27 France: Les Bleus remain on Six Nations Grand Slam course
By Michael Cantillon at the Principality Stadium
Last Updated: 23/02/20 7:12am
Romain Ntamack's 17-point haul ensured France remain on course for a first Six Nations Grand Slam in a decade, as they beat Wales 27-23 in a crackling Cardiff atmosphere.
Les Bleus, who hadn't won in the Welsh capital since their last Championship clean-sweep in 2010, combined to display scintillating back play, staunch defence and a superbly physical pack, clinching a deserved victory.
The visitors, who also contended with two yellow cards on the day to No 8 Gregory Alldritt and tighthead prop Mohamed Haouas, shone across the park as Anthony Bouthier and Paul Willemse crossed for first-half tries.
But 20-year-old fly-half Ntamack proved outstanding, scoring a try, kicking three conversions and registering two difficult penalties in the marquee win.
Reigning champions Wales scored their points through Dillon Lewis and Dan Biggar tries, as well as three penalties from the latter, but they were always chasing in this one and are now out of the hunt for the title, after two losses from three.
Having reclaimed the kick off, Wales hit the front in the Test after just four minutes when Biggar struck a crisp effort off the tee from over 40 metres out after France loosehead Cyril Baille was penalised for failing to roll away.
It was France who would score the opening try just three minutes later, however.
The genesis of the score proved a wicked Garryowen sent up by Ntamack and, although Wales full-back Leigh Halfpenny had ample time to see the high ball and get up for it, he was challenged in the air by France wing Teddy Thomas, forcing a spillage and allowing Bouthier to pick up on the run and sprint over.
With Les Bleus tails up, they continued to exert pressure deep in the Wales half, and on 19 minutes Ntamack added three further points with a superb kick which never veered in line five metres from touch after prop Lewis had been pinged for going off feet.
Wales worked their way back into the game with some sustained periods of phase-play, and on 26 minutes a penalty against France for offside allowed Biggar to narrow the away side's lead to 10-6.
France thought they were over for a second try on 28 minutes through Gael Fickou after a stunning attack, but after consultation with his TMO, referee Matthew Carley ruled out the score for a forward offload in the lead-up by Bouthier - a call which appeared debatable based on replays.
Fabien Galthier's charges needn't have worried for long, however, as less than two minutes later, second row Willemse was over in the same corner Fickou had dived in just before, following a cute lineout move down the left.
When Ntamack bisected the posts from wide out - the opposite flank from which he struck over the earlier penalty - France had a 17-6 advantage just past the half hour.
Once again in a frantically-paced Test, the Wales riposte was instant: a Biggar chip ahead releasing centre Nick Tompkins, whose inside ball to Gareth Davies created a line-break just outside the 22. France were again caught offside, and Biggar dispatched the simple penalty effort to reduce the arrears by three.
From there, Wales dictated the ball for the remainder of the half and played six minutes into dead time in search of a try before the break, turning down three potential penalty attempts for a five-metre lineout and two five-metre attacking scrums.
The France dam refused to break, however, and that despite losing Alldritt to a yellow card for the majority of that period due to repeated infringements.
It felt like a monumental period of play in the context of the contest and when Alldritt returned to the pitch five minutes into the second half, France had conceded no points while being a man down.
Ironically, it was when France were then restored to their full complement that Wales struck for a try - tighthead Lewis barrelling over by the posts after six phases of attack around the try-line. When Biggar converted, the France lead was down to a single point.
France were over for a third try just four minutes later though, when the outstanding Ntamack intercepted a short Tompkins pass in midfield and seared to the Wales line. The playmaker converted his own try thereafter, and France had a two-score lead once more.
On 64 minutes, Ntamack maintained his 100 per cent kicking record as he slotted a 45-metre effort over after Lewis was again penalised, perhaps harshly, for slowing the ball down - it left France 11 points up.
France and try-scorer Willemse avoided the concession of a potential penalty try inside the final quarter, when he knocked on in the act of tackling as Wales looked to score with a man over in the corner, but a series of resultant scrum penalties did see France's Haouas sin-binned with 12 minutes left.
When Demba Bamba emerged in Haouas' place and France forced a penalty against the head at the consequent scrum, there was no way back for Wales.
They did force a further try when Biggar scrambled over from close range - surviving a TMO review for a loss of control - but France saw out the remaining five minutes, heralding the full-time whistle after a brilliant Camille Chat breakdown turnover.
France had a bit of everything here. They had guile, offloading and superb lines of running in spades from the likes of Bouthier, Ntamack, Dupont, Fickou and Vakatawa.
Dupont and Ntamack kicked wonderfully, while the physicality both when in possession and defensively was monumental. Such a blend of creative back play and brutally physical collision-winning is a potent mix.
The main takeaway was perhaps France's defence, though. To have repelled and survived countless phases of Welsh attack, a stream of five-metre defensive scrums and Wales attacking lineouts so close to their line, and for 20 minutes while down a man, was a real statement.
It is a long, long while since a France team has shown that sort of fight when backs are to the wall.
Though Wales knocked France out of the most-recent Rugby World Cup at the quarter-final stage, Les Bleus seem to be replenished and fresh, while Saturday's hosts appear stagnated from that effort in Japan.
They are dealing with some significant injuries, but are also failing to hit the sort of pitch they routinely delivered in 2019. In fact, this was Wales' first Six Nations defeat in Cardiff since 2015, while it was the first time since 2013 that they had conceded three tries in a home match.
Missed kicks to touch, missed tackles, a failure to take chances and also a reluctance to kick penalties - something which ultimately was their undoing in many ways - all told in a hugely frustrating display for those of a Welsh persuasion.
Stat of the Game
Tweets of the Day
What a game! Some performance right on the edge by @FranceRugby, Ntamack was class! The @WelshRugbyUnion missed a fair few opportunities but there was some serious fight from France away from home which you don’t often see. Some questions over some of the officials decisions too!— Andy Goode (@AndyGoode10) February 22, 2020