Welsh fightback comes up short

26th Feb 2010, 22:36

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Shane Williams: Milestone try, but it wasn't enough

Shane Williams: Milestone try, but it wasn't enough

Wales once again thrilled in a fightback on Friday, but could not find the final flourish, going down 26-20 to France in Cardiff.

Wales once again thrilled in a fightback on Friday, but could not find the final flourish, going down 26-20 to France in Cardiff.

20-0 down at the break and having barely threatened the French line, a pasting similar to Wembley's 51-0 horror show in 1999 looked on the cards for the Welsh. They looked bereft of ideas, inspiration and shape at times as the French defence read every move.

But once again, the second half brought out the best in the Welsh. They worked their way back in with forward play that was simply better-executed and which conjured up two penalties from Stephen Jones. They scored a super try through Leigh Halfpenny. They should have equalised when Jamie Roberts made a clean break and inexplicably held on to the ball when the pass to James Hook was both easier and more effective.

In the end, they ran out of steam. France found a modicum of the mojo they had displayed in the first half and managed to close out the game, despite a last-minute try from Shane Williams that brought up his half-century for Wales.

Match commentators sat back after this one, dropped headphones on desks and opined that Welsh home matches should come with a health warning. Whether that should be for the increase in blood pressure over the ineptitude of the first half or the pulse-quickening excitement of the second was not clear, but you're never going to have a dull moment at Welsh matches this year, it seems.

Indeed, the French played party poopers to the Welsh's favourite party trick, when Freddie Michalak managed to find the logical thought that Scotland could not and pumped the restart of the final play of the game straight into touch to end the match. You'd have put your shirt on Wales scoring the game-clinching try had he not.

Yet all that excitement aside, Wales need a serious period of introspection. It's a truism that Lions tourists are often off the boil the following season, but Lee Byrne and Jamie Roberts in particular were culpable for a series of morale-sapping errors which robbed the fightback of its impetus.

The laying of proper blame for the defeat must be laid squarely at whatever it is that makes the Welsh traipse out onto pitches needing forty-odd minutes of beating about for them to wake up. They've won some classic second halves this year, but they've been thrashed like second-tier nations in some first halves.

Out of all this, we should not forget that France are still on course for the Grand Slam everybody is now betting the shirt they did not put on Wales' last play on. We should also not discount the effectiveness of their first half display, with rampant and noticeably well-educated defence picking apart at Wales' weaknesses from the first whistle.

The French showed a knack for knowing where the ball would go next that is a fine advertisement for the preparations made by the coaching team before the game. Both tries came from intercepts, but a more telling pass-mark for the defence was the way the French prevented Wales from even coming close to their tryline.

Italy's current impersonation of an attack ought to be competently dealt with on this form, but it is this sort of intelligence in preparation that will stand the French in good stead when they head back to Paris for what is almost certain to be a Grand Slam-stakes clash with England.

Gatland had spoken all week about the need for a strong opening, yet France were able to cash in with a gift sixth-minute try.

James Hook's speculative pass to his centre partner Jamie Roberts went straight to Palisson, and he sprinted over unopposed from the halfway line for a score that Parra converted.

Hook's missed tackle led directly to an early Scotland score in Cardiff 13 days ago, and once again he was forced to reflect on a painful blunder.

Wales struggled to cope with Les Bleus' physical intensity, illustrated when their star centre Mathieu Bastareaud powered through his opposite number Roberts.

It resulted in Parra kicking his second penalty either side of Wales lock Jones limping off to be replaced by Newport Gwent Dragons forward Luke Charteris.
Wales had a mountain to climb at 13-0 adrift, and it soon became a case of Shane or bust.

Wing wizard Williams represented Wales' best - and seemingly only chance - of breaking down a mighty French defence.

But one from one of his trademark touchline darts, France scored a critical second try as half-time approached.

Williams was tackled, and after he lobbed the ball back to his supporting team-mates, it ricocheted straight into Trinh-Duc's hands and he easily finished off.

Parra's second conversion gave the visitors a 20-point interval lead, leaving Wales to contemplate a damage-limitation exercise before Jones opened their account through a 46th-minute penalty after an impressive counter-attack ended when Charteris spilled possession.

It was much brighter from Wales though, and Jones' second penalty lifted the capacity crowd after they were left stunned by a French first-half masterclass.

Things got even better after 62 minutes when Williams appeared in midfield and rifled a scoring pass to Halfpenny. Jones' wide-angled conversion made it 20-13 and set up a pulsating finish.

Roberts then made a sparkling break to keep Welsh hopes alive, yet he failed to find one of his supporting runners and a golden chance went begging.

In truth, it summed up Wales' night. A case of so near, so far, after once again leaving themselves with too much to do, although Williams provided one late flash of genius.

Man of the match: The match organisers gave it to Julien Bonnaire, but while he, along with Clement Poitrenaud, Francois Trinh-Duc, William Servat and Imanol Harinordoquy all impressed, we could not help but be bowled over by the energy of Nicolas Mas, who gave the Welsh a torrid time in the scrum and still found time to tackle Shane Williams.

Moment of the match: There is always so much to admire in Welsh games this year, but Shane Williams' late try, his 50th for his country, was a grand finale to remember.

Villain of the match: Welsh fans might not forget Lee Byrne's two penalties kicked into touch in-goal that cost his side critical late momentum.

The scorers:

For Wales:
Tries: Halfpenny, S Williams
Cons: S Jones 2
Pen: S Jones 2

For France:
Tries: Palisson, Trinh-Duc
Cons: Parra 2
Pens: Parra 2, Michalak

Wales:15 Lee Byrne, 14 Leigh Halfpenny, 13 James Hook, 12 Jamie Roberts, 11 Shane Williams, 10 Stephen Jones, 9 Richie Rees, 8 Ryan Jones(c), 7 Martyn Williams, 6 Jonathan Thomas, 5 Deiniol Jones, 4 Bradley Davies, 3 Adam Jones, 2 Huw Bennett, 1 Paul James.
Replacements:16 Ken Owens, 17 Rhys Gill, 18 Luke Charteris, 19 Sam Warburton, 20 Mike Phillips, 21 Andrew Bishop, 22 Tom Shanklin.

France:15 Clement Poitrenaud, 14