Romain Ntamack contributed 17 points as France upset defending champions Wales 27-23 in Cardiff on Saturday.
With every passing round, France increasingly look like genuine Six Nations title contenders this season. They are now three from three courtesy of upset wins over reigning champions Wales, World Cup finalists England and Italy.
The result also lands another body blow to Wales’ hopes of successfully defending their Six Nations crown, as they appear set to relinquish the title. Ireland are the only other unbeaten side remaining this campaign, but following today’s victory Les Bleus are the main protagonists.
In arguably the best game in the competition this year, the contest highlighted all the best of French rugby. Les Bleus lit up the Millennium Stadium with effortless flair. They varied their attack, bossed the forward exchanges, deployed an accurate kicking game that caused the Wales back three all sorts of problems and were clinical in their execution. But, more importantly, France employed a relentless defensive effort that is rarely associated with this team.
In a blistering start, France seemed intent on testing Leigh Halfpenny in the air and they were rewarded when the fullback fumbled an aerial bomb which fell kindly for his opposite number, Anthony Bouthier, who ran away to score behind the posts.
The visitors systemically extended their lead thanks to another brilliant try, this time by South African-born lock Paul Willemse off a well-executed lineout move. Wales, on their part, offered very little on attack and on the rare occasion they did go close to the tryline, they were frustratingly met by resolute defence by France. This was best illustrated on the stroke of half time when France conceded a yellow card and a penalty five metres out. Wales kept the ball alive for six stoppage-time minutes and called for two attacking scrums in that period, but they were comprehensively shut out by France, who took a 17-9 lead into the break.
To Wales’ credit, they rallied back to get within a point of their opponents soon after the restart, but a 10-point haul from Ntamack took the sting out of Wales’ attack and killed off their hard-earned momentum. That was enough to suggest France have victory in the bag.
But in a frenetic, drama-filled end to the match, Wales came close to snatching a win. Trailing by 11 in the last 10 minutes, Wales were handed a much-needed reprieve when France conceded a second yellow card. Dan Biggar crashed over for a self-converted effort to make it a four-point game. Wales made a searing break right at the end, but France tracked back in the nick of time to halt the attack and earn a turnover penalty to secure a first win in Cardiff in 10 years and keep their Grand Slam hopes alive.
Wales – Tries: Dillon Lewis, Dan Biggar. Conversions: Biggar (2). Penalties: Leigh Halfpenny, Biggar (2).
France – Tries: Anthony Bouthier, Paul Willemse, Romain Ntamack. Conversions: Ntamack (3). Penalty: Ntamack (2).
Wales – 15 Leigh Halfpenny, 14 George North, 13 Nick Tompkins, 12 Hadleigh Parkes, 11 Josh Adams, 10 Dan Biggar, 9 Gareth Davies, 8 Taulupe Faletau, 7 Justin Tipuric, 6 Ross Moriarty, 5 Alun Wyn Jones (c), 4 Jake Ball, 3 Dillon Lewis, 2 Ken Owens, 1 Wyn Jones.
Subs: 16 Ryan Elias, 17 Rob Evans, 18 Leon Brown, 19 Will Rowlands, 20 Aaron Wainwright, 21 Tomos Williams, 22 Jarrod Evans, 23 Johnny McNicholl.
France – 15 Anthony Bouthier, 14 Teddy Thomas, 13 Virimi Vakatawa, 12 Arthur Vincent, 11 Gael Fickou, 10 Romain Ntamack, 9 Antoine Dupont, 8 Grégory Alldritt, 7 Charles Ollivon (c), 6 François Cros, 5 Paul Willemse, 4 Bernard Le Roux, 3 Mohamed Haouas, 2 Julien Marchand, 1 Cyril Baille.
Subs: 16 Camille Chat, 17 Jean-Baptiste Gros, 18 Demba Bamba, 19 Romain Taofifenua, 20 Dylan Cretin, 21 Baptiste Serin, 22 Matthieu Jalibert, 23 Thomas Ramos.
Photo: Stu Forster/Getty Images