Strictly speaking, a final line cannot yet be drawn below the 2021 Six Nations championship. There is still one last Parisian tango to come next Friday, but this eventful drama will be impossible to beat. Never could a grand slam have been snatched as cruelly as late as it was at the Stade de France, when Brice Dulin tried in the 82nd minute to deny Wales a fifth grand slam in 16 years.
With the clock in red, it looked like Wales could hold on, but the coffin lid was destined to crack open for the last time. The French winger, previously denied an attempt that appeared to have determined the outcome, found himself alone and took the final pass from replacement Arthur Vincent to break all the hearts of the Welsh from Caernavon to Cardiff.
What an exciting game it was, the tightrope of a competition that initially seemed unlikely as Antoine Dupont stepped in for his team’s second attempt within the first 20 minutes. If the Welsh fans had had access to the Stade de France, they would hardly have been able to see at the end; at home it was just as unbearable.
Once again, however, there was a massive arbitration controversy. France appeared to have recovered within a scoreboard when Dulin went over, but at the crucial ruck on the Wales line, his second-row colleague Paul Willemse was on trial for having made contact with the eye area of a visiting opponent. He left Wales with a 10-point cushion to protect, only for the yellow card to Taulupe Faletau and Liam Williams to leave them with 13 men for the final seven minutes.
It wasn’t meant to be, but Wales can still be proud of their season and could still claim the title if Scotland can do them a favor this Friday.
The last time Wales successfully pursued a grand slam away from home was exactly 50 years ago in Paris with Gareth Edwards, JPR Williams and Barry John all involved under the captaincy of John Dawes. However, since the expansion of the former Five Nations at the turn of the century, they have been serial winners with as many slams before this season as England, Ireland and Scotland combined.
Ranking these things, frankly, is an academic debate. All that matters is beating whoever is in front of you in a given season – try telling Alun Wyn Jones that his team is not worthy of the greatest respect. There he was again before kickoff, addressing the group, touching his temple, giving his teammates a meaningful look. When Alun Wyn finally retires, they could do worse than include him in Line of Duty.
It already seems that the British & Irish Lions would be almost negligent in not naming him captain of the series scheduled for this summer against South Africa. Either way, the big guy’s Welsh hat 148 was impressive from the start. France, wounded by the defeat to England, looked instantly dangerous and took the lead after six minutes, a takeoff from the line-out brought them almost to the Welsh line where the imposing Romain Taofifénua leaned in to score.
How unlucky Wales had to not register an instant response of their own, as if Gareth Davies had slipped over the Rees-Zammit pass line only to be judged by local captain Charles Ollivon. Turns out it didn’t matter, Biggar cut a sharp inner line to drag his side back.
They needed all the available points. Dulin’s delicate chip on top bounced beautifully for Matthieu Jalibert, who duly fed the lurking Dupont on his elbow. Shoulders from many sides would have slumped at that stage. Not Wales. They came back again, running hard and smart and there was nothing to stop Navidi from close range. Four great attempts in the first quarter? You’re really spoiling us, Ambassador.
Already in Wales it was also dawning that the slight slack of France could allow them the title through the back door. Four tries plus a losing bonus point, and aside, the silverware would be his. Teddy Thomas didn’t throw a pass to anyone, Jalibert kicked a ball into midfield with little pressure. Little things, big implications.
While the visiting scrum was under occasional pressure, France also had to make a change at 10 where Jalibert was forced to retire following a head injury evaluation. Ntamack is a similar class act, immediately stepping up to kick the penalty that sent France back 17-17 just before the break, but it was a distraction that Les Bleus could ideally have done without.
That said, this has been a gloriously upside-down championship from the start. Who would have imagined England losing to Scotland, Wales and Ireland in a Lions year? Or Scotland playing as well as they did at Twickenham, only to revert to inconsistent form from before? In hindsight, that opening game now feels almost irrelevant to the bigger picture, with the English finally finishing a humble fifth.
The big question this time around was how far Shaun Edwards would accelerate the French at halftime, just as he did for so long as coach of the Wales defense. Everything he said seemed to have been lost in translation. France continued to look oddly passive and, having spent just 35 seconds in Wales’ 22 in the first half, they again found themselves on their back foot.
Another Biggar penalty gave the visitors a 20-17 lead and then came the call from TMO in the 50th minute that knocked Wales over the top. In Wayne Barnes’ view, there was simply not enough clear evidence to overturn the referee’s initial on-field decision that Adams had scored and Dylan Cretin’s hand was deemed not to have saved the day. Surely Wales couldn’t blow up a 10-point mattress? The fall of French prop Mohamed Haouas towards the end of the fourth quarter and the dismissal of Willemse, who ruled out Dulin’s try in the 67th minute, suggested that he had not and further increased the tension.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism