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French art and aggression too much for wobbling Wales

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Tom Fordyce | 13:50 GMT, Saturday, 28 February 2009

So there will be no back-to-back Grand Slams for Wales, no record-breaking run of Six Nations victories - and from the bleary-eyed red-shirted hordes wandering through the bright spring sunshine of Paris on Saturday morning, there were precious few complaints.

Sometimes sporting results can be cruel, unfair, destined to give you sleepless nights of what-ifs and why-nots for years to come.

Not this time. France's stirring success in the Stade de France was no act of larceny. Victory was as deserved as Wales' title-sealing triumph had been in the corresponding fixture last year, and everyone from Charlotte Church to Carla Bruni knew it.

This is why successive Grand Slams don't come around very often. Over the course of two championship seasons, the chance are that at some point you'll have a collective bad day against a team enjoying a collective very good day.

Wales put in their worst performance since their World Cup defeat by Fiji in this same country 17 months ago. France had their best since their win over the All Blacks in the same tournament. C'est aussi simple que ca.

Leading the charge for the home side, literally as well as figuratively, was the explosive, indefatigable back row of Thierry Dusautoir, Fulgence Ouedraogo and Imanol Harinordoquy

We all like to wax lyrical about Gallic flair, about the fancy fliers in the backs and the romantic runners from deep, but the best French teams have always been a combination of art and aggression.

Dusautoir, Ouedraogo and Harinordoquy were relentless - smashing into contact, picking-and-going again and again, making hard yards and conceding almost nothing.

Harinordoquy, who made almost twice as many carries as any other man on the pitch, crashed through Ryan Jones's tackle to set Dusautoir's key try just before half-time.

Every time one of them bulldozed off the base of a ruck, the noise in the stadium went up another notch. Every time one of them stopped Andy Powell in his tracks, Welsh heads went down a little more.

It might have hurt Shaun Edwards to witness it, but the collision area belonged to France all night long.

"There were a few of those hits where I thought my legs were going to come off," admitted Shane Williams afterwards, and he could have been speaking for several more of his team-mates.

In 17 ¾ stone centre Mathieu Bastareaud, France have taken the Jamie Roberts template and somehow found room to add extra smash.

Imanol Harinordoquy was in fine form in Paris

Even his name sounds like swear-word. When the debutant broadsided Roberts midway through the first half, 70,000 French fans simultaneously roared and winced.

It was Wales, not France, that looked as if they had been playing domestic rugby last weekend, and France who looked like they had enjoyed a fortnight's rest.

What will hurt Warren Gatland is that this was a match Wales handed over, as much as it was a game France seized.

To lose having played to the best of your abilities is one thing. To lose without getting remotely close to your usual standards is far more puzzling and painful.

All the things Wales have done so well under Gatland in the last 13 months they did badly.

Their discipline went the way of England's - downhill. In one patch in the second period, they shipped seven successive penalties, crumbling under the force of the French assault.

Error followed error. You can understand Leigh Halfpenny's wobbles under the high ball as first Benoit Baby and then Yannick Jauzion set their sights on him - he is, after all, a newcomer to this kind of cauldron - but when Shane Williams spills a simple snag ("one I'd take 20 times out of 20") you know something's up.

It wasn't just the wingers. Powell went into a ruck from the side to give away a stupid penalty with Wales clambering all over the French line and 13-6 up. Mike Phillips ran straight into hooker Matthew Rees to gift the opposition the possession that led to Cedric Heymans going over for their second try.

"Our back three made eight mistakes on their own," said a stormy-faced Gatland, "and they've gone through games not making any at all. You can't legislate for that."

Then there was the defence. Or rather, worrying often, there wasn't.

Last season Wales conceded just two tries in five championship matches in total. In their last two matches alone, they have conceded four, and the ease with which France pierced the previously-impenetrable thin red line will surely make the Edwards frown darken still further.

Despite all that, the game was still there to be won.

With two minutes left in the first half and Wales leading by six, the home crowd was growing increasingly restless. Tom Shanklin got across the gain-line and another Welsh try looked on the cards, only for Powell to concede that penalty, Lee Byrne to drop an up-and-under and Ryan Jones to miss that tackle on Harinordoquy, all in quick succession.

Bang - France were level going into the break, the Marseillaise was ringing around the stadium and tricolours were being waved from all corners.

Then, an almost exactly the same point in the second half, only a desperate late tackle from Francois Trinh-Duc prevented Martyn Williams touching down under the posts for a try that, if converted, could have stolen the match from France's back pocket. Even then Gavin Henson had a chance on the right, but elected to go for the line himself with men screaming for the ball outside him.

It wasn't to be. And despite the late drama, as Gatland conceded, "this wasn't one that got away."

France should have been out of sight. They spent 30 minutes of the second half in Wales' half, and had twice as many minutes in possession than Gatland's side.

Morgan Parra missed eight kickable points, Trinh-Duc a slottable drop-goal, and only Halfpenny's desperate intervention held up Harinordoquy when another try seemed certain.

Wales may have won on three of their last five visits to Paris, but this match always looked like the biggest hurdle in the way of another clean sweep.

So it proved. Against the beautiful brutality of the French onslaught, the poetic symmetry of successive Welsh Grand Slams, exactly 100 years after it was first achieved, never stood a chance.


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