Planet Rugby

France leave Welsh in a mess

26th August 2007 16:37

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Pierre Mignoni try v Wales

Essai! Pierre Mignoni scores for France

The desired performance from Wales heading into the Rugby World Cup was not forthcoming at the Millennium Stadium on Sunday, with the Welsh going down 7-34 at home to France in their final warm-up match.

The French defence remained virtually unbreachable to the last, bar James Hook's solo effort, but it was rarely tested by a lacklustre Welsh effort.

Wales coach Gareth Jenkins will now head into the tournament with a multitude of questions still unanswered, while Bernard Laporte can relax in the knowledge that his team is taking shape nicely.

To add injury to insult, Wales captain Gareth Thomas was stretchered off near the end, and his participation in the World Cup is now in doubt.

France rolled out in their 'change' strip of gleaming white (because, of course, red and blue are almost indistinguishable to the marketeers of modern rugby) and were almost bridal in their poise: they looked pretty, did what was expected of them and hardly broke sweat.

Moreover, white suits France's new approach. Gone is the attacking laissez-faire, that thirst for champagne rugby. In its place is an obsession with clean sheets, a near-impregnable defence that makes the Maginot Line look like a swing door. (Insert your own war-related joke here.)

Immensely unexciting though it is, France's new-found lust for defence bodes well for what lurks around the corner. Adventure has never flourished at the Rugby World Cup, and it's a fair assumption that the spoils will go to the side that concedes the least tries rather than the one that scores the most.

But that's not to say that Les Bleus have forgotten the way to the tryline, far from it. Four tries in Cardiff tells a tale in itself.

The French have spoken long and hard about the need to build confidence, and they made good on their bold intentions from the off. Cédric Heymans, a success at fullback, choose to run the kick-off out of his 22, igniting a flowing move that finally died - at the hands of a knock-on - on the Welsh line.

The crowd grew quieter still as Wales proceeded to lose their first line-out, and fell stony silent as Martyn Williams coughed off up a penalty for pawing at the ball whilst on the deck. Lionel Beauxis duly stepped up to open the scoring.

Wales bounced back well, stealing France's first line-out before mounting an energetic attack featuring some fine inter-passing between forwards and backs.

But France responded in kind - and more fluently - by returning a loose Welsh grubber at pace. The raid was arrested a metre short of the line, but a delicious pop-pass from Pierre Mignoni found Jérôme Thion, and the big lock drove over in the corner for France's first try. Beauxis converted and the visitors were in double figures with just 14 minutes played.

Wales continued to make life hard for themselves. They sensed that they might have an advantage out wide, but getting the ball out to their wings proved problematic, and the requisite gaps simply failed to materialise.

The effervescent opening fell a little flat in the second quarter of the game as Wales made a conscious effort to control the game on their terms.

The decision to fall back on Hook's boot won the locals more turf but put immense pressure on their wonky array of set-piece options.

Still, Hook's ability to keep the ball in front of his forwards afforded the Welsh a toe-hold on proceedings, and raids around the fringes - orchestrated and executed by the irrepressible Dwayne Peel - gave France some food for thought.

France absorbed the pressure with aplomb, and their new brand of offensive defence soon had Welsh hearts in throats as Vincent Clerc almost dotted down a hacked-on turnover possession.

Graham Hughes, the video official, had scarcely turned to rewind his tapes before another call came through from referee Wayne Barnes. Rémy Martin was seen burrowing under the last line of Welsh defence but "inconclusive" evidence as to whether he found the whitewash allowed Wales to breathe again - but only for the duration of the resultant scrum.

Peels's box-kick from the base of the set-piece was charged down by Imañol Harinordoquy and France had their try, for the third time of asking, after Mignoni dotted down the loose ball. Beauxis added the extras and the visitors had clear water with six minutes remaining until the break.

Wales continued to rack their brains for answers to France's watertight defence, running through the full gamut of attacking options.

It was a moment of inspiration from Martyn Williams that finally cracked the code, taking the ball in the outside centre position before straightening up and finding Hook looping around his back. The young pivot still had plenty to do but backed his pace and managed to slither over the line for a try.

Hook converted his own score on the stroke of half-time, and Wales disappeared into the bowels of the stadium buoyed by the knowledge that they had already succeeded where England had failed over the course of two games: they had scored against the French.

The visitors, clearly stung by that slight to their honour, tore into the second half with a vengeance. Some fine defence from that man Martyn Williams and a couple of clumsy knock-ons kept the French honest, but Beauxis soon added three points to his side's tally after Wales infringed in defence.

A raft of replacements, on both sides, then knocked the structure out of the game. Not that the locals were complaining, their skills are better suited to broken-field rugby and they were soon asking questions of the French.

But with Wales's focus fixed on attack, France were gifted the easiest of tries as Aurélien Rougerie collected an inside-ball and cantered through a gaping hole in the Welsh midfield to score under the sticks. Beauxis converted and France had a 20-point lead.

Wales, to their credit, continued to huff and puff. The gaps were beginning to appear in the French lines, but Wales's intense desire to score tries and answer their critics did them no favours: move after move feel foul to rash decision-making and unforced errors.

With the result assured, the game petered out to a succession of injuries and more replacements.

Wales were now on their last legs but France didn't relent. It was the fresh legs of Sébastien Bruno who finally put the hosts out of their misery by powering though some flimsy defence to score at the death.

Jean-Baptiste Elissalde added the conversion with the last kick of the game - the cherry on the top of a comprehensive win.

And so ends the phoney war. France head into the World Cup on the back of three solid wins - they are real contenders.

Meanwhile, things look bleak for Wales. There's still time for tinkering in the garage, but empirical evidence suggests that they will fall some distance short of that "minimum requirement of a semi-final spot".

Man of the match: Cédric Heymans proved to be a revelation in the unfamiliar position of fullback, and the French back-row put in a titanic performance - again. Wales might have lost, but it wasn't for the lack of effort on the part of Alix Popham and, our man-of-the-match, Martyn Williams - a colossus in attack and a rock in defence. A couple more players of his calibre, and Wales would be serious contenders for the world crown.

Moment of the match: In terms of crucial moments, it could be the injury sustained by Gareth Thomas. For Wales to lose their captain - and inspiration - so close to showtime would be a calamity of the highest order.

Villian of the match: No real contenders, but the Welsh management need a ticking off for taking their sweet time to respond to the urgent SOS issued by a stricken Kevin Morgan.

The scorers:

For Wales:

Try: Hook

Con: Hook

For France:

Tries: Thion, Mignoni, Rougerie, Bruno

Cons: Beauxis 4

Pens: Beauxis 2

Wales: 15 Kevin Morgan, 14 Mark Jones, 13 Jamie Robinson, 12 Gareth Thomas (captain), 11 Shane Williams, 10 James Hook, 9 Dwayne Peel, 8 Alix Popham, 7 Martyn Williams, 6 Jonathan Thomas, 5 Alun-Wyn Jones, 4 Ian Gough, 3 Chris Horsman, 2 Matthew Rees, 1 Duncan Jones.

Replacements: 16 T Rhys Thomas, 17 Gethin Jenkins, 18 Will James, 19 Colin Charvis, 20 Michael Phillips, 21 Ceri Sweeney, 22 Sonny Parker.

France: 15 Cédric Heymans, 14 Aurélien Rougerie, 13 Yannick Jauzion, 12 David Skrela, 11 Vincent Clerc, 10 Lionel Beauxis, 9 Pierre Mignoni, 8 Imañol Harinordoquy, 7 Rémy Martin, 6 Serge Betsen, 5 Jérôme Thion, 4 Sébastien Chabal, 3 Pieter De Villiers, 2 Dimitri Szarzewski, 1 Nicolas Mas.

Replacements: 16 Sébastien Bruno, 17 Jean-Baptiste Poux, 18 Fabien Pelous, 19 Thierry Dusautoir, 20 Jean-Baptiste Elissalde, 21 Damien Traille, 22 Christophe Dominici.

Referee: Wayne Barnes (England)

Touch judges: Alain Rolland (Ireland), Simon Mcdowell (Ireland)

TMO: Graham Hughes (England)

By Andy Jackson

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