Thursday 14 December 2017

French claim 100-minute epic

France 20 Wales 18

France players celebrate Camille Lopez’s winning conversion of Camille Chat’s try — in the 20th minute of stoppage-time. Photo: David Davies/PA Wire
France players celebrate Camille Lopez’s winning conversion of Camille Chat’s try — in the 20th minute of stoppage-time. Photo: David Davies/PA Wire

Michael Aylwin

Extraordinary scenes. This was the sort of game to enrage the French, but notice of their revival has been served by the manner in which they found a way to the win, while chaos and insanity reigned. A full 20 minutes after the 80 minutes was up, they finally barged their way to victory with a try by Camille Chat, the conversion of which clinched France's third win of the tournament.

Wales had defended heroically, and the maddening boot of Leigh Halfpenny had landed six from six to manufacture, somehow, a five-point lead as the clock turned red. Wales's flankers had, as ever, led a remarkable defensive effort, but now it came down to a scrummaging stand-off, in which they were under-gunned, despite earning some sympathetic decisions there from Wayne Barnes. They had run out of second-rows, with Alun Wyn Jones and Jake Ball off, and it seemed, 20 minutes later - after tactical shenanigans from both sides, as well as an accusation of biting against the French on George North dismissed - as if they might yet survive. But France finished the stronger and finally forced their way to a second try of the match.

All France at the end, then, just as it had been at the start. They threatened to destroy Wales in the opening few minutes. One of the corollaries of so competitive a championship is the mini-fluctuations in form and mood of each team, one week beaten, the next snapping back into winning ways. Wales were coming off their most gratifying performance and result of the season, so perhaps we should have expected a drop-off in intensity.

Or maybe it was just France's turn to enjoy a burst of form. They rushed into a 10-0 lead after a mere quarter-of-an-hour, and it in no way flattered them. An early Camille Lopez penalty attempt was ambitious, and unsuccessful, but France had their first try in the seventh minute. They might have had one earlier, but Jonathan Davies's flapping arms in a tackle on Fabien Sanconnie spoilt the latter's pass to Noa Nakaitaci lurking unmarked on the outside. A penalty was all it was good for, apparently, which is worth noting, in light of developments a few minutes later.

France went for the corner, and from the second attempt at a lineout Lopez's chip was gathered by Rémi Lamerat for the opening score. It was extended by Lopez with the conversion and then a penalty a few minutes later. One area France were dominant was at the scrum. For a while, it was almost worth knocking the ball on deliberately for the inevitable penalty at the ensuing scrum. Thus that first penalty for France's 10-0 lead.

But Wales went nowhere. It took them those 15 minutes, but the second quarter was theirs. The turning point came with a yellow card for Virimi Vakatawa, in almost exactly the same circumstances as Davies was not shown one. This time, Vakatawa's flapping arm prevented Dan Biggar completing his pass to the unmarked North outside him. Both incidents might have merited a penalty try, but Barnes held off. He did, at least, agree that a yellow was appropriate, but there could be no explanation why here and not earlier, because there isn't one.

France's Brice Dulin is tackled by Wales' Jonathan Davies. Photo: David Davies/PA Wire
France's Brice Dulin is tackled by Wales' Jonathan Davies. Photo: David Davies/PA Wire

Halfpenny, his kicking boots well and truly on again, landed the penalty from wide out on the right, then accrued two more in the second quarter to pull Wales to within one at the break.

He earned them the lead quarter of an hour into the second half, but again the curious decisions of the referee played too great a part. The home supporters were not impressed.

Mind you, the first curious decision was France's, choosing to run a penalty in front of the sticks, but they might have scored had Halfpenny not batted the ball into touch. Barnes neither reviewed it nor gave any more than a scrum. France went forward - penalty. So they scrummaged again. France went forward again, and the scrum collapsed. This time, though, Barnes decided that Rabah Slimani had chosen to collapse the scrum he was winning.

Wales cleared, and moments later, this time at a wheeled scrum, Barnes found favour with Wales again, and Halfpenny kicked them into the lead with a 50-metre penalty on the angle. With their edge at the scrum seemingly negated, France started to give vent to their running skills, which are considerable. Brice Dulin's counterattacking was outrageous, as was Gael Fickou's to engineer overlaps. A rogue hand at a lineout earned Halfpenny the chance to stretch Wales's lead to five with another long-range shot, but France replied with a penalty from the restart after more dangerous phases.

France's Camille Chat in action. Photo: Benoit Tessier/Reuters
France's Camille Chat in action. Photo: Benoit Tessier/Reuters

But the impression that this was not to be their day was reinforced when Ken Owens ducked into the tackle of Uini Atonio right in front of the posts, as Wales developed some phases. Halfpenny's sixth penalty; Wales five ahead again; into the last 10 minutes.

And so to the extraordinary denouement. France kept coming in waves, crashing against the Welsh defence. And with a penalty conceded under the pressure, so the scrummaging face-off was set up. A more than convenient injury to Atonio brought France's best scrummager, Slimani, back into the fray.

Barnes became embroiled in conversation after conversation with captains, coaches and officials to check the probity of what was going on. When he sent Samson Lee to the sin-bin, he had to do so again, when Wales tried not to send the man he replaced, Tomas Francis, back on. Alas, his replacement had been tactical, so on he came for more scrummaging.

Wales managed to stand their ground satisfactorily, so France resorted to running again, coaxing Wales into a penalty - and thence another scrum. This pattern was repeated time and time again. After the fourth or fifth, France's scrums started to bite; more penalties; but Barnes refused to go to the sticks.

So, it was left to France to batter over. Antoine Dupont wriggled close, but Chat, the replacement hooker, barged over, 20 minutes after the 80, and Lopez converted to send the Stade de France into rapture.


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