It was the longest match in Six Nations history when Damien Chouly bundled his way over the try line in the 99th minute, but France’s incredibly late victory over Wales on Saturday was anything but thrilling.
Chaotic, baffling, a shambles – these have all been used to try and explain what happened from the moment the clock struck 80 minutes and the ‘last play’ started, though instead it proved to be the start of 20 minutes extra time until the replacement flanker scored and fly-half Camille Lopez kicked the conversion to secure a 20-18 victory.
What we’ll try to do is break down what actually happened in those additional 20 minutes at the Stade de France, where allegations of biting and cheating, one yellow card when three seemed more appropriate and even the wrong try-scorer being announced all left the 80,000-plus in attendance and plenty more watching on television at a loss to explain what just happened.
It all started with a replacement. France, facing the prospect of a five-metre scrum, knew that they needed a converted try to win the match and salvage third place in the table. They also knew that they had Wales in all sorts of trouble in the front-row, while injuries had depleted the rest of the pack behind them to the point that captain Alun Wyn Jones was off, Jake Ball had joined him and replacement Luke Charteris was scrumming down next to No 8 Ross Moriarty in the second-row.
As you can imagine, it was far from ideal given the French pack has proven one of the strongest in world rugby this year, and yet they decided to make a highly controversial decision that led the Wales coach, Rob Howley, to "question the integrity of our game".
Uini Atonio, the French replacement tighthead prop, replaced Rabah Slimani in the 55th minute but come the end of the regulation 80 was breathing very heavily and looked to be struggling with the workload in the scrum, though the giant 24-stone La Rochelle forward was still enjoying the advantage in the scrum. A French doctor attempted to run on tend to Atonio, much to the bemusement of referee Wayne Barnes, and he was quickly dismissed.
How the madness unfolded
81:46 – Samson Lee sin-binned
86:00 – No play until scrum set, 6:31 left on the sin-bin
89:11 – North claims he’s been bitten to touch judge in clash with Dulin, Nakaitaci and Huget.
91:27 – Penalty to France. Barnes warns Warburton, 1:07 left on the sin-bin. Play stops.
92:21 – Lee and Leigh Halfpenny come back on
92:45 – Allegation of bite on North made to Barnes, clearly a mark on his arm. TMO review.
95:54 – Nothing found by TMO, scrum reset and play restarts. Chould eventually scores in the 99th minute, with Lopez converting. Match ends at 99:55.
Total time: 14:08. Time with ball in play: 3:11
Barnes asked Atonio if he was injured, to which he answered “I have a sore back” but confirmed he was fine to continue. However, after the next collapsed scrum, the doctor appeared again, and demanded that Atonio go off the pitch for a Head Injury Assessment [HIA] which would result in Slimani, one of the best scrummaging props in the world, coming back on. How coincidental. That Atonio walked down the tunnel alone, without a medic for the HIA, did not go unnoticed.
Barnes smelt that something wasn’t right, but with a doctor telling him that Atonio needed to go off, Barnes had no option than to call for his replacement. That left Wales feeling particularly robbed, though both Howley and Jones stopped short of using the word cheat.
The confusion came just after Samson Lee had been sent to the sin-bin with 81:46 on the match clock. However, Barnes had not stopped the clock – he would not do so again until full-time – meaning that when play restarted, the clock was up to the 86th minute, and crucially Lee’s sin-bin was already down to 6:31 without a second being played. Barnes wasn't in the wrong to do this, given that on the face of things there is no need to stop the clock once the final play has started, but there's a flaw in this ruling in that time off for replacements, injuries and reviews wing down any sin-bin period, meaning Wales were not punished as they should've been. It's here where World Rugby need to clear up the ruling on time management by the officials, otherwise similar instances can and will occur.
Eventually, France were able to take the ball from the scrum and attack left, but with Rhys Webb penalised for hands in the ruck, Les Bleus knew they had a penalty advantage. But controversy would arise once more before play could resume. George North ended the play by tackling Brice Dulin, the French full-back, well behind the gain line. Both Yoann Huget and Noa Nakaitaci tried to clear out the Welsh wing, but the rest of the two sides were already jogging back to the other side of the field for the penalty. It’s here were North alleges that he was bitten, and he immediately makes his point clear to the touch judge before informing Barnes, who reviewed it with the Television Match Official [TMO], but replays were inconclusive.
What the television footage did show though was that both Dulin and Huget were in a position where they could have made contact with North’s arm, which according to Barnes had evidence of a bite, while Howley added “there's evidence on George's arm to suggest something did happen”.
And still the clock ticked along, meaning Lee, who had been sin-binned in time added on, was able to return to the field and actually play another seven and a half minutes before the end of the match.
Finally, something similar to a game of rugby would resume, and Chouly would score the all-important try for the French, though that did not stop the stadium announcer giving Camille Chat the credit. However, Wales have already lodged a complaint with the Six Nations, and investigations into both incidents are sure to be held, along with a review of Barnes’ performance given his failure to award either a penalty try or anther yellow card as the Welsh repeatedly infringed on their own line.