21 - 16
(Half Time 13 - 13)
Fri 27th Feb 09, 20:00
Venue: Stade de France
Referee: Mark Lawrence
Imanol Harinordoquy & Tom Shanklin
27 February 2009, 10:06 pm
Wales run out of steam in Paris
Wales suffered their first RBS 6 Nations defeat for almost two years as hopes of first back-to-back Grand Slams since 1909 floundered at Stade de France.
A run of eight successive Six Nations victories ground to a halt in the tournament’s first Friday night fixture as the visitors went down 21-16.
And the reigning champions could have few complaints after blowing a 13-3 lead.
They looked in control after full-back Lee Byrne’s try and eight points from the boot of fly-half Stephen Jones generated a comfortable advantage.
France though, fought back to justify coach Marc Lievremont’s team selection that featured a debut for 20-year-old Matthieu Bastareaud in midfield, with centre Benoit Baby at fly-half and novice Morgan Parra handed goalkicking duties.
Parra slotted three penalties and a conversion as France edged the try-count through touchdowns by flanker Thierry Dusautoir and wing Cedric Heymans.
Substitute James Hook kicked a late Wales penalty, but France were good value for the win that Lievremont so badly needed.
Both sides can still win the championship, yet unbeaten Ireland now appear to be in control ahead of their home game against England tomorrow.
Wales though, will be smarting from missing a chance to equal the Six Nations record of nine wins in a row jointly held by France and England.
Wales boss Warren Gatland made one change from the side that accounted for England a fortnight ago, recalling fit-again wing Shane Williams instead of Mark Jones.
And there was also a place on the bench for Williams’ Ospreys colleague Gavin Henson, who recovered from calf muscle trouble to make a first Test match appearance since Wales’ Six Nations title-clinching victory over France last season.
Given Lievremont’s seemingly-erratic selection policy, no-one quite knew what to expect from Les Bleus.
And the opening flurries went Wales’ way as they made a confident start through two Jones penalties inside nine minutes.
Parra hit the target for France, yet Wales kept a solid defensive line and forced errors from a Les Bleus outfit whose anxiety in attack inevitably produced mistakes.
Wales struggled to impose themselves on the contest to a consistent degree, and they were fortunate to escape a yellow card midway through the half.
Centre Tom Shanklin took out France number eight Imanol Harinordoquy in mid-air, but, as the crowd bayed for a caution, South African referee Mark Lawrence opted for a lecture to Shanklin and Wales captain Ryan Jones instead.
France were charged by the incident and their forwards stormed upfield, creating a powerful attacking platform from which they were narrowly denied a try.
Hooker Dimitri Szarzewski crashed over the line, but the video referee ruled he had failed to ground possession and Wales escaped.
The visitors needed to reassert themselves in the contest, and they delivered a devastating answer just when questions began to surface.
A spell of pressure produced a stunning result when fly-half Jones’ defence-splitting pass found Byrne, whose exquisite timing of his run allowed him an unopposed 30-metre dash for glory.
Wales had waited patiently for the moment - in stark contrast to a French huff and puff approach - and Jones’ conversion made it 13-3 early in the second quarter.
Parra cut the deficit six minutes before the break, finding his range with an angled 30-metre strike, yet Les Bleus piled pressure on themselves almost from the restart.
Parra’s awful pass to Baby put the rookie fly-half under intolerable pressure, and he did not reappear from the ensuing melee.
Wales’ marauding tacklers engulfed him, and Baby limped out of the action to be replaced by Montpellier’s Francois Trinh-Duc.
It was an inglorious exit for a player poorly selected by Lievremont, yet Wales conceded a try on the stroke of half-time that would have infuriated head coach Gatland.
The visitors seemed to be caught napping as the French forwards rushed into Wales’ 22, and Dusautoir claimed a try that Parra converted to make it 13-13 at the break.
Wales’ off-colour appearance continued afterwards, but they enjoyed a reprieve when Parra rifled a straightforward penalty chance wide.
But Wales continued to be stretched in defence, and they were breached again after 52 minutes when slick passing and incisive running resulted in a try for Heymans.
Parra’s conversion attempt rebounded off the post, and it proved the cue for three Wales substitutions as Henson, scrum-half Dwayne Peel and hooker Huw Bennett joined the action.
Henson replaced Jamie Roberts at inside centre, and he was immediately smashed by a crunching tackle that underlined France’s appetite for the battle.
Wales could rarely escape from inside their own half, and, when Parra completed his penalty hat-trick 10 minutes from time, there was no way back into the contest, despite a last-gasp flurry.