France keep Grand Slam dream alive
SIX NATIONS REPORT: Romain Ntamack guided France to a thrilling 27-23 victory over Wales on Saturday to keep their hopes of a Grand Slam alive.
France scored first-half tries through Anthony Bouthier and Paul Willemse, both converted by Ntamack, who also hit a penalty, punctuated by three from Dan Biggar.
Dillon Lewis crossed for Wales early in the second period, but a converted Ntamack try and a further penalty saw France pull away for their first victory in Cardiff since 2010 despite Biggar’s late converted try.
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Ntamack scored a smart intercept try and chipped in with 12 points with the boot for a first French victory in Cardiff since 2010 that also went some way to avenging Les Bleus’ World Cup quarterfinal exit at Welsh hands.
“It’s amazing, we worked all the week for a big game like that it was a tough game,” said Ntamack.
“We have no experience but we play with a smile but it was good experience to win here.”
Tellingly, France have never won their first three Six Nations games without going on to win the Grand Slam.
They next travel to Scotland, before ending at home against Ireland.
The match at Cardiff’s Principality Stadium had been pitched as one of youth versus experience.
Wales coach Wayne Pivac had selected a starting XV holding a Six Nations record of 859 caps compared to France’s 234. Welsh skipper Alun Wyn Jones won his 137th cap with the entire French pack boasting just 109 between them.
But the French arrived in the Welsh capital girded by a new attacking verve and, importantly, a reconstructed defensive rigour thanks to former long-time Wales coach Shaun Edwards, and on the back of opening wins over England (24-17) and Italy (35-22).
Wales flyhalf Dan Biggar opened the scoring with a third-minute penalty, but the French showed all their attacking intent from the restart, Gael Fickou sent flying down the wing.
Ntamack fired a towering up-and-under into the air shortly after, Leigh Halfpenny knocking on under pressure from the impressive Virimi Vakatawa and Teddy Thomas and into the path of Anthony Bouthier, the full-back scooting in under the posts for the game’s opening try.
France stand firm
Ntamack, son of iconic former France back Emile, converted and then added a 19th minute penalty.
Biggar reduced the deficit with his second penalty as Fickou was denied what would have been a fantastic try by the television match official for a forward pass in the build-up.
France were not done, however, a double Vakatawa tackle setting up another potent attacking opportunity deep in Welsh territory.
Wales looked to have nullified the line-out maul, but France’s South African-born lock Paul Willemse peeled away to crash over for his maiden Test try, Ntamack converting.
Biggar hit his third penalty as Wales upped the ante. France No 8 Gregory Alldritt was yellow carded on the stroke of half-time for repeated offsides, Wales opting to go for a scrum from the ensuing penalty.
Six tense minutes later and a Nick Tompkins knock-on after a thrilling sequence of offloading attack saw France’s defence stand firm to escape any punishment, going into the break 17-9 up.
Wales had the start they desperately needed in the second period, prop Dillon Lewis driving over from close range from a phase of play set up initially by Tompkins’ kick into the corner.
Biggar’s conversion drew the home side to within a point of Les Bleus, but the helter-skelter continued unabated as Ntamack rushed his defence against a Welsh overlap to cleverly pick off Tompkins’ pass at full rattle and sprint in from nearly 50 metres for a five-pointer he also converted.
France then withstood wave after wave of Welsh attack, notably with tighthead prop Mohamed Haouas in the sin bin.
Eventually, the stout defensive wall gave way, Biggar crashing over for a try he converted to make it 27-23 with five minutes to play.
Tompkins broke clear with seconds left on the clock, the crowd baying, but replacement French hooker Camille Chat turned the ball over to keep a rejuvenated Les Bleus team in the running for the Grand Slam.
Tries: Lewis, Biggar
Cons: Biggar 2
Pens: Biggar 3
Tries: Bouthier, Willemse, Ntamack
Cons: Ntamack 3
Pens: Ntamack 2
Yellow card: Mohamed Haouas (France, 69 – repeated infringements, collapsed scrum)
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 (captain), 4 Jake Ball, 3 Dillon Lewis, 2 Ken Owens, 1 Wyn Jones.
Replacements: 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 Gregory Alldritt, 7 Charles Ollivon (captain), 6 Francois Cros, 5 Paul Willemse, 4 Bernard Le Roux, 3 Mohamed Haouas, 2 Julien Marchand, 1 Cyril Baille.
Replacements: 16 Camille Chat, 17 Jean-Baptiste Gros, 18 Demba Bamba, 19 Romain Taofifenua, 20 Dylan Cretin, 21 Baptiste Serin, 22 Mathieu Jalibert, 23 Thomas Ramos
Referee: Matthew Carley (England)
Assistant referees: Wayne Barnes (England), Karl Dickson (England)
TMO: Graham Hughes (England)