France took a further step toward claiming the Six Nations championship on Friday when they survived another stirring Wales fightback to secure a 26-20 victory that made it three wins out of three.
Intercept tries by Alexis Palisson and Francois Trinh-Duc, plus two Morgan Parra penalties gave France a commanding 20-0 halftime lead at the Millennium Stadium.
Wales got back to 20-13 with 20 minutes left via the boot of Stephen Jones and a Leigh Halfpenny try, but two penalties by France’s replacement flyhalf Frederic Michalak reopened the gap and meant Shane Williams’ sparkling try came too late.
France coach Marc Lievremont was able to celebrate three successive victories for the first time since taking over after the 2007 World Cup and two more, at home to Italy and England, will secure their first title since 2007.
“We’re split between happiness and relief after that second half because with a 20-point lead, to suffer as we suffered in the second half is incredible,” Lievremont told reporters. “We lost all coherence even before the break. In the dressing room, all the players were overexcited, they were all talking. The second half has been a long ordeal. It was like the specter of [the] Wales-Scotland game.”
Wales started well, but the momentum shifted after six minutes when Palisson picked off a floated James Hook pass to run 60m and score under the posts.
With their scrum looking solid, France then enjoyed a spell on top and two penalties from Parra edged them further clear.
Wales tried a desperate attack at the end of the half, but it went badly wrong again when flyhalf Trinh-Duc anticipated Shane Williams’ pass out of the tackle for another easy score.
After two Jones three-pointers, a terrific pass by Williams set Halfpenny free and he showed great pace to score in the corner and restore home hopes.
Jones converted well from the touchline and with Parra sin-binned for a deliberate knock-on, the Welsh fans began to believe another sensational comeback could be on the cards.
Against Scotland two weeks ago they trailed by 10 points with five minutes remaining and somehow won the match, and they had further chances to close the gap on Friday.
Some poor decisions and poor handling meant, however, that they failed to register a point while France were down to 14 men and Michalak stretched the lead back to 13 points.
Williams then marked his 33rd birthday with his 50th Welsh try, another superb jinking effort that Jones again converted, but this time it came too late.
“Those two [intercept] tries have been very costly. It’s frustrating,” Wales coach Warren Gatland said. “We could have thrown in the towel, but the guys came out, played some great rugby [and] put themselves in position to win the game.”
“We tried to play a lot of rugby. France never really threatened our line all match,” he said. “They got two intercepts and kicked four penalties, but never really got in our 22 and put us under pressure. There was one team trying to play some rugby, but we have just got to stop pushing the self-destruct button.”