France’s prevailing dark arts against Wales offer rugby bloodgate reminder | Michael Aylwin

Michael Aylwin at the Stade de France
The Guardian
<span class="element-image__caption">Wales’ wing George North is tackled by François Trinh-Duc, France’s fly-half, during the Six Nations match at the Stade de France on Sunday.</span> <span class="element-image__credit">Photograph: Christophe Simon/AFP/Getty Images</span>
Wales’ wing George North is tackled by François Trinh-Duc, France’s fly-half, during the Six Nations match at the Stade de France on Sunday. Photograph: Christophe Simon/AFP/Getty Images

We could have another bloodgate on our hands. Whether you believe Dean Richards’s misdemeanour was the vilest crime perpetrated against a trusting world or just another storm in a teacup, the fact is it came with a three-year ban - and there is little to distinguish it from the manoeuvre France appear to have engineered in Paris. What’s more, unlike Harlequins’ fast one, France’s worked. In the most dramatic of circumstances.

Camille Chat’s try, at the end of the 100th minute of a game that seemed as if it would never end, secured France the win that clinches their first finish in the top three of the Six Nations since 2011. But the method by which they secured it is sure to attract the attention of the folk with access-all-areas badges. And then there’s the livid bite mark on the left arm of George North. That’s sure to be investigated too.

France were well worth the win. They had been ill-treated by Wayne Barnes all match, their dominance at scrum time scarcely rewarded, even penalised at some points, while a deliberate knock-on cost them a yellow card, an offence for which Wales escaped twice without diminishment of their number. Meanwhile, Wales owed their 18 points to the immaculate kicking of Leigh Halfpenny, knocking over six penalties, half of them for nothing offences on or around the 10-metre line.

But what happened in the 80 minutes will quickly be forgotten, if it hasn’t been already. It is the 20 minutes thereafter that will live long. Wales’s management are furious about how France re-secured that edge at scrum time, just as the game reached its critical point, which was two minutes after the clock had turned red, Rob Howley describing France’s antics as undermining the integrity of the game.

As the teams prepared for a scrum on Wales’s five-metre line, the French doctor pulled off Uini Atonio, the replacement tighthead, for a head injury assessment. HIAs are sacrosanct, no referee or independent doctor able to overrule them. Howley accused France of abusing that privilege, pointing to the fact that Atonio had told the referee moments earlier that he had a sore back but was otherwise fine. He also pointed to the fact that Rabah Slimani, France’s best scrummager and the man they wanted back on the field for the critical scrums that followed, had been warming up beforehand, a la Nick Evans at the Stoop in 2009. Howley also observed how a member of the French coaching panel had just left the technical area, which he’s not allowed to do, to speak with said doctor.

Barnes was clearly suspicious when that doctor then hauled Atonio off, to be replaced by Slimani. France thus rediscovered their dominance at scrum time, winning penalty after penalty, until they finally forced their way over the line for the winning score.

Not that Wales were whiter than white during those mind-twisting final minutes. When Samson Lee, their replacement tighthead was sent to the sin bin, they were in no rush to send Tomas Francis back on, uncontested scrums suiting their cause immeasurably. It was only when Barnes asked whether Francis’s earlier substitution had been tactical or injury-related that they were obliged to send him back on, the former having been the case. That said, it would hardly have surprised anyone if they had dreamed up a convenient cramp to prevent his return. How they must wish they had.

Almost lost amid the craziness was the bite on North’s arm. Barnes reviewed the alleged incident on the big screen, but the footage was inconclusive. Only the one camera angle was supplied by French television, but others will no doubt be studied in the days to come.

The lesion on North’s arm was fairly self-explanatory. At the post-match press conference, we were treated to the extraordinary scene of Guy Novès, France’s coach, biting himself on the arm, in an apparent attempt to show that such wounds can be self-inflicted. It was a suitably surreal end to the day. It almost certainly, though, will not be the end of this.

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