Welsh 'win ugly' to set up title showdown
Wales 19 France 10
Published 27/02/2016 | 02:30
The roof might have failed but the machine that are Wales under Warren Gatland powered their way to the top of the Six Nations table here last night.
This was a victory that defined the age, a vice-like gain that squeezed the life out of the opposition with scant concern for the rugby aesthetic.
Beauty in this regime starts and ends with the hammer, 80 minutes of unrelenting attrition. France had their moments, particularly in the second half, but their forward assault was met with an equal and opposite defensive thrust that failed only at the death when the result was decided.
Even then the French mauled their way across the line, the ball driven forward in a blue buttress that was anything but pretty.
The Wales try at the start of the second half might have won a beauty contest had George North collected Jonathan Davies' kick cleanly. North broke across the halfway line in a fury but, with the French defence closing, affected a first-class air shot as he tried to advance the ball toward the line a pied. Jules Plisson ended up doing it for him, kicking the ball back into North's path for the winger to collect and dive across the line.
The game had sought a point of difference and found it not by design but luck. That will not detain Wales unduly. A fifth successive victory against the French is on the board and it's England next at Twickenham, a contest that will, in all probability, decide the Championship.
"It was a very ugly way to win a Test," Warburton acknowledged. "Fair play to France, they kept going for 80 minutes. The plan was to wear them down but it didn't happen.
"We played a team with two wins from two and we're undefeated. It really sets it up for Twickenham. I was thinking to myself 'surely the fans are starting a Mexican wave - it's boring'."
The French made five changes to the team that squeezed the pips out of Ireland. The Welsh brought in Bradley Davies for the injured Luke Charteris at lock and rejigged the back row, returning skipper Sam Warburton to his favoured openside role at the expense of Justin Tipuric and reinstating Dan Lydiate as blindside crusher, minor alterations to a template that values stopping over creating.
There was an unexpected departure, however, with a malfunctioning roof that was unable to close as scheduled on the ground's unveiling as the Principality Stadium.
The targeting of weak points has been the talking point of the hour. After the brutalising of Ireland's playmaker Jonathan Sexton in Paris, attention fell on French fly-half Plisson.
A rank forward pass in the early exchanges betrayed his nervous disposition, as did a kick for touch that went straight out, handing Wales a lineout that resulted in the first penalty of the match, missed by Dan Biggar.
Given a chance to make amends when the Welsh scrum went to ground, Plisson also missed. It was a fearful punt mind, from a metre inside the Welsh half, the ball drifting wide.
These were the set-piece morsels offered in a game of bish, bash, bosh. There is much to be admired in the fearless effort and indefatigable grunt, but the game is hardly served by its reliance on power.
Wales went ahead courtesy of a French infringement 30 metres out, a late hit on Toby Faletau. Biggar split the posts this time. It was no more than Wales deserved. The initiative had been with them throughout the opening 20 minutes, dominating the ball and territory.
With 10 minutes of the half remaining Antoine Burban was led temporarily from the pitch after having his features rearranged in the tackle by his opposite number Warburton, who in one ruinous exchange for the French demonstrated his value when the ball is tucked under his arm and the blinkers are on.
With the France defence creaking, Wales immediately forced another penalty and Biggar said thank you very much. However, Lydiate failed again to heed the warning about whacking an opponent without use of the arms to gift the French three points in what was their first assault on the Welsh line, a detail made even more frustrating given the failure of Wales to batter past the French when camped on the line at the close of the half.
A tip tackle on Alex Cuthbert as Wales rushed the French line at the start of the second half effectively cancelled Lydiate's error.
Jonathan Danty was rightly penalised, but this was another example of the difficulty in breaking the line. Danty had enough time to lift and turn Cuthbert. Foolish it might have been, but the action was born of defensive organisation and control.
It took a moment of comedy to break the defensive line, North going over at the second attempt after his mis-kick was followed by Plisson's blunder.
Plisson appears doomed to fail in Cardiff. The10-minute spell of sustained French pressure that followed ended when Plisson passed again to North, this time to hand, enabling Wales to see out the storm.
Wales - Liam Williams (Anscombe 74); Cuthbert, J Davies, Roberts, North; Biggar (Priestland 70), G Davies; Evans (Jenkins 55), Baldwin (Owens 66), Lee (Francis 66), B Davies, Jones, Lydiate, Warburton (capt), Faletau.
France - Medard; Vakatawa, Mermoz (Fickou 66), Danty, Camara; Plisson (Trinh-Duc 63), Machenaud (Bezy 70); Poirot (Pelo 63), Guirado (capt, Chat 63-70), Slimani (Atonio 63), Jedrasiak (Maestri 43), Flanquart, Lauret, Burban (Goujon 52), Chouly.
Ref - W Barnes (England).