Extraordinary scenes. This was the sort of game to enrage the French but notice of their revival has been served by the manner in which they found a way to win, while chaos and insanity reigned. A full 20 minutes after the 80 minutes was up, they finally barged their way to victory with a try by Camille Chat, the conversion of which clinched France’s third victory of the tournament.
Wales had defended heroically and the maddening boot of Leigh Halfpenny had landed six from six to manufacture, somehow, a five-point lead as the clock turned red. Wales’s flankers had, as ever, led a remarkable defensive effort but now it came down to a scrummaging standoff, in which they were undergunned, despite having earned some sympathetic decisions there from Wayne Barnes in the second half.
They had run out of second-rows, with Alun Wyn Jones and Jake Ball off, the former with a suspected shoulder injury that will trouble Warren Gatland, the Lions coach. However, a full 20 minutes after that goalline stand had started, it seemed as if Wales might yet survive. In those 20 minutes there had been tactical shenanigans from both sides as well as an accusation of biting against France by George North.
The latter was dismissed, perhaps because by then Barnes had had his fill of referrals and cross-examinations. A more-than-convenient head injury assessment for Uini Atonio, which enraged Wales’s head coach, Rob Howley, had brought France’s best scrummager, Rabah Slimani, back into the fray early in the standoff.
Barnes became embroiled in conversation after conversation with captains, coaches and officials to check the probity of what was going on. When, a minute or two later, he sent Samson Lee to the sin-bin, he had to do so again, when Wales were slow to send the man he replaced, Tomas Francis, back on. Barnes ascertained that his replacement had been tactical, so on came Francis for more scrummaging and Halfpenny was withdrawn to maintain Wales’s restriction to 14. That was in the third minute of overtime. The wonder is that Halfpenny and Lee had more than enough time to return and take part in the final knockings.
Wales’s scrum, initially, managed to stand their ground satisfactorily, so France resorted to running, coaxing Wales into a penalty – and thence another scrum. This pattern was repeated time and time again. After the third or fourth, France’s scrums started to bite; more penalties; but Barnes refused to go to the sticks.
So, it was left to France to batter over. Antoine Dupont wriggled close but Chat, the replacement hooker, barged through a thicket of tacklers, 20 minutes after the 80, to put an end to the madness – and trigger the euphoria.
All France at the end, then, but it had been so at the start, too. They threatened to destroy Wales in the opening few minutes. They rushed into a 10-0 lead after a mere quarter of an hour, and it in no way flattered them. Their first try came in the seventh minute.
They might have had one earlier but Jonathan Davies’s flapping arms in a tackle on Fabien Sanconnie spoiled the latter’s pass to Noa Nakaitaci, lurking unmarked on the outside. A penalty was all it was good for, apparently, which is worth noting, in light of developments a few minutes later.
France went for the corner and from the second attempt at a lineout Camille Lopez’s chip was gathered by Rémi Lamerat for the opening score. It was extended by Lopez with a penalty a few minutes later, their first of many penalties from a scrum.
But Wales went nowhere. It took them those 15 minutes but the second quarter was theirs. The turning point came with a yellow card for Virimi Vakatawa, in almost exactly the same circumstances as Davies was not shown one. This time, Vakatawa’s flapping arm prevented Dan Biggar completing his pass to the unmarked North outside him. Both incidents might have merited a penalty try but Barnes held off. He did, at least, agree that a yellow was appropriate, but there could be no explanation why here and not earlier, because there isn’t one.
Halfpenny, his kicking boots well and truly on again, landed the penalty from wide out on the right, then accrued two more in the second quarter to pull Wales to within one at the break. He earned them the lead quarter of an hour into the second half, but again the curious decisions of the referee played too great a part. If you were French you would describe those decisions as shameful.
Mind you, the first curious decision was France’s, choosing to run a penalty in front of the sticks, but they might have scored had Halfpenny not batted the ball into touch. Barnes neither reviewed it nor gave any more than a scrum. France went forward – penalty. So they scrummed again. France went forward again and the scrum collapsed. This time, though, Barnes decided that Rabah Slimani had chosen to collapse the scrum he was dominating.
Wales cleared, and moments later, this time at a wheeled scrum, Barnes found favour with Wales again, and Halfpenny kicked them into the lead with a 50-metre penalty on the angle. With their edge at the scrum seemingly negated, France started to give vent to their running skills, which are considerable. Brice Dulin’s counterattacking was outrageous, as was Gaël Fickou’s to engineer overlaps. Nevertheless, two further Halfpenny penalties, for innocuous technical penalties in unthreatening positions, sandwiched one from Lopez, to set up Wales’s five-point lead when the clock turned red. We thought that might be the end of it. How wrong we were.
France Dulin; Nakaitaci, Lamerat (Trinh-Duc 66), Fickou, Vakatawa (Huget 54); Lopez, Serin; Baille (Ben Arous 55), Guirado (capt; Chat 72), Slimani (Antonio 54), Vahaamahina (Le Devedec 77), Maestri, Sanconnie (Chouly 55), Gourdon, Picamoles Sin-bin Vakatawa 19 Tries Lamerat, Chat Cons Lopez 2 Pens Lopez 2
Wales Halfpenny (Francis 80+3-80+13); North, J Davies, S Williams (Roberts 54), L Williams; Biggar, Webb; Evans, Owens, Francis (Lee 60), Ball (Baldwin 60; Moriarty 72), AW Jones (capt; Charteris 52), Warburton, Tipuric, Moriarty (Faletau 54) Sin-bin Lee 80+3 Pens Halfpenny 6
Referee Wayne Barnes (Eng)
Attendance 78,688 Game rating 7/10