France escapes Cardiff a winner with Grand Slam in sight
CARDIFF, Wales (AP) — France hurdled the considerable obstacle that was Wales in boisterous Cardiff by just 13-9 and stayed on track for the Six Nations Grand Slam on Friday.
The French took their only try-scoring chance early on and absorbed intense pressure for long periods to remain unbeaten four games into the championship and on their longest winning streak — seven — in 18 years.
They return home to Paris for the final round next weekend to face England with a great chance to clinch the Grand Slam and Six Nations title for the first time since 2010.
“Sometimes you cannot play fantastic rugby every week. You have to be smart in the right areas,” France manager Raphael Ibanez said. “Our defense was outstanding and that’s what won us the game.”
Wales’ defense of the 2021 title ended two weeks ago in the narrow loss to England, but a team in transition gave France its biggest scare of the season in front of a raucous crowd at Principality Stadium.
After France scored the last points in the 47th minute — Melvyn Jaminet’s second penalty — Wales missed two try chances.
Hooker Ryan Elias was held up over the line in the 49th, and Jonathan Davies spilled the ball with the try-line open in the 63rd.
“Ultimately, it’s very, very disappointing,” Wales captain Dan Biggar said. “We were the better team for large periods of the game.
“One or two big moments are what big test matches hinge on. We didn’t quite nail those moments and we paid the price.”
France’s defense frequently buckled but didn’t break, and in the last quarter, especially, it tightened up and Wales didn’t have the power or the nous to even squeeze out a penalty kick chance.
For a fourth straight match, Wales was slow out of the blocks, and France’s Jaminet kicked a penalty inside the second minute.
Biggar quickly equalized but France turned nothing into a try in the ninth minute, as it has done throughout the championship.
Jaminet fielded a Liam Williams up-and-under inside his half and gave winger Gabin Villiere a break down the left touch. Play swung left again and Wales’ defense was caught short as Jaminet gave flanker Anthony Jelonch the overlap and walk-in try.
The move also cost Wales its scrumhalf, Tomos Williams, who banged his head against Jonathan Danty’s legs.
Biggar kicked a second penalty to trail 10-6 at the start of a madcap second quarter, in which Wales’ kicking pinned France in its own half, and the French — finding themselves matched physically — tried to force things and made more errors than usual. Even star scrumhalf and captain Antoine Dupont was subdued.
But Wales kept shooting itself in the French 22; penalized in a scrum, conceding a free kick in a lineout, and flanker Seb Davies was isolated.
Biggar’s third penalty had Wales only 10-9 behind at halftime.
Their set-piece was strong and prop Tomas Francis, in the spotlight for being cleared to play after a head injury against England, was holding his own.
But again, France scored the first points of the new half off Jaminet’s right boot.
Moments later, Elias was driven over the line but held up as all the pressure was coming from Wales. Its biggest moment came in the 63rd when Biggar crosskicked to Taulupe Faletau near the left touch. Faletau drew the last man and fed inside to Davies who spilled the ball with nothing in front of him.
France’s own desperation was such that Romain Ntamack tried a dropped goal and Jaminet a long-range penalty without success.
But they held on, and a prized Grand Slam awaits.
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