Saturday, April 13

Anthony Jelonch’s try keeps France’s grand slam dreams alive against Wales | SixNations 2022

Four down, one to go. France’s mission for the grand slam, and their first title since 2010 rumbles on, but how Wales made them work for it. Les Bleus were fancied to dominate the defending champions but, as they have demonstrated so often, the Welsh are not easily intimidated.

An early try by Anthony Jelonch ultimately proved decisive but the life was so nearly squeezed from the French grand slam attempt on an incredibly nervy night. But they won ugly, and will welcome England to Paris next weekend going for a clean sweep.

Josh Navidi was the latest seasoned campaigner to return to the Welsh back row among four changes made by Wayne Pivac, and slotted in at No 7 alongside Taulupe Faletau at No 8. Seb Davies, usually a lock, was selected at No 6 to bring extra power along with his impressive stature at lineout time.

There had been copious pre-match grumbling about ticket pricing and the logistics of a Friday night match, and the vast swathes of empty seats at the Principality Stadium were obvious before kick-off. The roof was open and it became a crisp, cold evening after a pre-match deluge.

Not that the weather, the open roof, or the number of fans present seemed likely to concern the grand-slam chasing visitors. Fabien Galthié’s side of him looked ready for business, huddled together near halfway long before Wales emerged from the tunnel.

France looked dangerous from the off. The scrum-half Antoine Dupont ghosted through a midfield gap and off-loaded to the giant second row Paul Willemse. Melvyn Jaminet caressed a penalty through the posts after Wales’s Navidi was penalized at a ruck. Biggar immediately leveled from the tee when France were punished for obstruction.

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When the lively Toulon wing Gabin Villiere made a dart on the French left, the Welsh defense initially reset themselves, but even a thunderous hit by Ryan Elias could not prevent Les Bleus crossed the try-line. Jaminet ruthlessly capitalized on a simple overlap, off-loading to Jelonch who jogged over. Jaminet converted, and it was an ominously effective score from a Welsh perspective.

France’s Romain Ntamack and Paul Willemse celebrate after the match. Photograph: Paul Childs/Action Images/Reuters

Would Wales roll over? Of course they wouldn’t – even if they lost Tomos Williams, the scrum-half, who took a heavy blow to the head in trying to tackle Jonathan Danty. Another Biggar penalty reduced what had become a seven-point deficit after the wing Alex Cuthbert kicked ahead. The Welsh passing game started to fizz a little, while the powerful carries by Navidi and Faletau began to punch a hole or two.

France were under pressure, and a stunning 50-22 kick by Biggar bought the field position for another penalty by the Wales fly-half, which made it a one-point game. Jaminet’s limp attempt at a drop-goal from long range hinted at the pressure that Galthié’s side had been under.

There was a sense when they emerged for the second half that France had gathered themselves and refocused, no doubt thanks in part to some pointed words from Shaun Edwards, the former Wales defense coach who helped to mastermind so many memorable results here in the past.

Jaminet cracked over a straightforward penalty to edge France four points in front. A tense third quarter ensued, punctuated by a singing competition between the Welsh and French fans, battling each other to produce the loudest volume as a nervous finish beckoned. France nursed their four-point advantage into the final quarter – but invited pressure on themselves when Danty knocked on and gifted the hosts a scrum on the visitors’ 22.

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They escaped with their slender lead in tact and were soon threatening at the other end, the fly-half Romain Ntamack drifting an attempted drop-goal narrowly wide as Galthié’s men continued to search for a decisive score. It took on the shape of a match that France would surely have lost before Edwards instilled such discipline in their defensive ranks.

Thibaud Flament of Toulouse, fresh from the replacements bench, was arguably fortunate to escape a yellow card after tipping the wing Josh Adams over in a tackle.

Faletau, again bursting with intent and industry in attack and defence, sprinted into space on the right but the French kept tackling and kept their shape.

With seven minutes left, Wales steamed forward into the French 22 only for a brilliant interception by Ntamack from Biggar to relieve the pressure. Jaminet missed a late kick at goal but it didn’t matter. France held firm. Roll on Paris.

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