Guinness Six Nations
France 41-28 Wales
France held up their end of the bargain with a bonus-point 41-28 win over Wales at the Stade de France to give themselves a chance of winning the 2023 Guinness Six Nations.
Les Bleus now need England to beat Ireland in Dublin, denying them a bonus point, if they are to retain the title they won with the Grand Slam a year ago.
Either way, it was an impressive finish to the campaign from France, who have responded to a first defeat in 18 months away in Dublin with three consecutive bonus-point wins against Scotland, England and now Wales.
With a World Cup on home soil later this year, this was the kind of performance that will give Fabien Galthié and his coaching staff confidence in where the team is headed.
Wales flew out of the blocks with an early try from George North, before France worked their way back into the game, tries from Damian Penaud and Jonathan Danty, along with the boot of Thomas Ramos, allowing them to take a 20-7 lead in at the break.
Uini Atonio then went over on the occasion of his 50th cap right after half-time with Gaël Fickou following shortly after as Les Bleus pulled clear and wrapped up the bonus point.
France were in danger of running away with it, but instead, Wales struck back, Bradley Roberts then Tomos Williams coming off the bench for crucial tries.
Penaud added a second as France struck back, but Wales had the final say, Rio Dyer crossing in the corner for a Welsh bonus point that they thoroughly deserved.
Warren Gatland’s selection for this game featured many of the players who have enjoyed success in this stadium in previous years, including Taulupe Faletau winning his 100th Wales cap.
Those matches were often cagey affairs, this was anything but with both teams playing with ambition throughout.
Wales made their intentions clear early, turning down a simple shot at goal to kick to the corner and sticking with that tactic throughout.
While the French defence repelled them initially, a succession of penalties kept the pressure on the home side. Eventually, that territorial dominance told, with Rhys Webb firing a wide pass out to North for a simple run-in. Dan Biggar converted and Wales were 7-0 to the good, having monopolised possession for the first seven minutes.
France responded as only they can however, striking from their very first attack. On halfway, Romain Ntamack slipped out of a tackle from Nick Tompkins and ran at the heart of the Welsh defence, drawing defenders with him. Antoine Dupont was on his shoulder, as ever, and collected the offload from his fly-half. Outnumbered, the France captain searched for space and drifted right before flinging the ball to an unmarked Penaud on the wing to dive over. Ramos converted from the touchline and France were level.
Still, Wales were playing with the sort of freedom that has been missing so far this campaign and threatened again, only for a big scrum from France to allow them to clear their lines.
France’s defence was being given a thorough examination, but held up well, and they were able to set up camp in the Wales half from a rare kick by Danty.
That was backed up by good work at the breakdown from Julien Marchand, with France taking the pragmatic option of three points from Ramos.
For the first time, Wales seemed a little shaken by their hosts, and a loose pass from Webb past Dan Biggar led to Louis Rees-Zammit kicking out on the full. France then earned another scrum penalty, Ramos slotting it to make it 13-7 to Les Bleus.
The momentum had clearly shifted, and when Dupont went on a weaving run in the Wales 22, the visitors were scrambling. The French forwards hammered away on the left before the ball was shifted wide to the right where Danty powered over for a second try. Ramos again converted from a tricky angle and France led 20-7 at the break, despite spending much of the half under the cosh.
The second half started in complete contrast to the first, France on the front foot from the off and quickly earning a penalty in the Welsh 22. This time they chose to take the scrum, rather than the three points and it paid off as Atonio popped up out wide to crash over for his first Test try. Ramos continued his fine campaign from the boot, converting to push the lead to 20.
The bonus-point try followed shortly afterwards, a lineout drive followed by Ntamack opening up space for Fickou to ghost through.
At 34-7, Wales were staring at a heavy defeat, but they responded well with a turnover from Justin Tipuric in the French 22 creating the opportunity for Roberts to crash over.
It was the spark Wales needed, Rees-Zammit following up with some neat footwork and then a clever kick from replacement Tomos Williams forcing Ethan Dumortier to carry the ball back over his own line.
While that attack was thwarted by good work at the breakdown from Peato Mauvaka, Wales did strike again, Williams darting over from close range after a good charge from Aaron Wainwright. With Biggar’s conversion, the lead was down to 34-21.
With points difference potentially a factor, France could not afford to concede anymore, and in fact they came back up the other end and got over for a fifth, Penaud crossing out wide for his second, completing a fine day against the only side he had not previously scored a try against in the Championship. Ramos again converted from out wide, taking his tally for the game to 16 and in the Championship to 84, second only to Jonny Wilkinson in a single campaign.
Yet it was Wales who had the final say, Dyer slipping a tackle and racing over in the right corner, with Owen Williams slotting the touchline conversion.