Six Nations 2021: Progress and pain for Wayne Pivac's Wales as Grand Slam dream vanishes

By Gareth GriffithsBBC Sport Wales

So this is what sporting heartbreak feels like. Utter devastation.

France have inflicted this sort of feeling on the Welsh rugby nation before. Few will forget the 2011 Rugby World Cup semi-final 9-8 defeat in Auckland following Sam Warburton's red card.

This turmoil is a new Six Nations experience as Wales wakes up still wondering how they lost in France.

England World Cup-winning scrum-half Matt Dawson says this last-gasp defeat will haunt the Wales players for years to come. It will certainly concentrate the minds of Welsh fans for some time.

Wales can still win the Six Nations title as they wait on the result of the tournament finale between France and Scotland in Paris next Friday. At this point that would be scant consolation.

Wales' defeat in France was a Six Nations spectacular for the ages, a modern-day masterpiece. It was a captivating classic that deserved to be played in front of a capacity crowd rather than the empty Stade de France.

A momentous match that left supporters breathless in their living rooms with a few hours' recovery needed to bring the heart rate and pulses down. Saturday night prime-time viewing at its best but watching the final 10 minutes should have come with a health warning.

Wales' players will care little about all of that. Desolation and dejection will override any thoughts of their role in entertaining millions.

Because Wales were so close, on the brink of completing the unlikeliest of Grand Slams. With Pivac's men leading 30-20 going into the final 10 minutes, France just having had second row Paul Willemse sent off, the scene seemed set for Welsh celebrations.

The red card had the opposite effect, as fearsome France were galvanised and Wales finished the match with 13 men as Taulupe Faletau and Liam Williams were yellow-carded.

France's commanding captain Charles Ollivon grabbed a try in the 76th minute before full-back Brice Dulin broke Welsh hearts with an 82nd-minute score. How? Why?

Dubious discipline

Wales' discipline had been outstanding during the tournament and helped bring them to the brink of a Six Nations clean sweep, but Pivac's side were undone in this department at the last.

Ireland and Scotland both had a player sent off in this year's meetings with Wales, who had played 15 Six Nations games since receiving a yellow card - when Liam Williams and Gareth Davies were sin-binned against Italy in 2018.

It appeared that once again it was their opponents who were losing their heads when Willemse was sent off for making contact with the eyes of prop Wyn Jones, a decision disputed by France head coach Fabien Galthie.

France front-rower Mohamed Haouas was already in the sin-bin for a professional foul that could have yielded a penalty try.

Referee Luke Pearce and television match official Wayne Barnes were central figures in this pulsating Parisian drama, where a few decisions might have gone either way. Should Wales have had a second-half penalty try, did Josh Adams ground the ball for his score?

Wales always though remained masters of their own fate.

But their discipline unravelled in the closing stages, with the yellow cards issued for persistent offending. Faletau was despatched for offside, while Williams was more controversially sent to the sidelines for diving off his feet at a ruck.

Despite losing two men, the game was still in Wales' hands. Literally. They had possession in the France half in the final minute before replacement second row Cory Hill was penalised at a breakdown to give the hosts one last chance at glory. The rest you know.

Attacking intent

The painful ending might overshadow what was Wales' most impressive performance under Pivac.

In building a 30-20 lead, a potent attacking outfit patiently eased through the phases and were rewarded with tries from Dan Biggar, Josh Navidi and Josh Adams thanks to outstanding ball retention.

Captain Alun Wyn Jones and Josh Navidi give their reaction to Wales' defeat in Paris

It was an effective system, as promised by Pivac and Stephen Jones since they took over from Warren Gatland following the 2019 World Cup.

There had been promising signs in the final quarter against England and the 48-7 hammering of Italy in Rome. For 60 minutes in Paris, Wales flourished.

We saw effective ball-carrying from the forwards, with centres Jonathan Davies and George North cutting incisive angles in midfield.

Full-back Liam Williams dominated the night sky, fielding numerous high kicks, with wings Louis Rees-Zammit and Adams looking for work off their flanks and breaching the gainline.

It was all masterfully orchestrated by fly-half Biggar, who had one of his most influential games for Wales.

Wales finished the tournament with a record 20 tries. They averaged four tries and 33 points a game yet still might finish second. Savage.

Pivac project

Numb was the word used by coach Pivac after the game and he will spend the coming days analysing what went wrong.

The Wales coach will reflect perhaps on his use of replacements, which had been so effective through the tournament. The calls made on Saturday night, however, did not work.

The mass withdrawal of Biggar, Ken Owens, Tomas Francis and Jonathan Davies after 68 minutes will be most closely analysed. 323 caps' worth of international experience lost in one moment.

Biggar was especially impressive but Pivac afterwards said his fly-half was suffering from cramp.

The balance between keeping experienced campaigners on the field and introducing fresh legs after a brutal, fast-flowing test match will be weighed up. Wales were tiring which contributed to 36 missed tackles in the match.

Overall, Pivac has enjoyed a successful tournament as he starts to emerge from Gatland's shadow.

Remember he came into this competition with continued doubts over his job after a 2020 where Wales had won only three of 10 games, against Georgia and Italy twice. They had finished fifth in the Six Nations and Autumn Nations Cup.

A few months on, he has delivered a Triple Crown and Wales might yet be Six Nations champions. We are starting to see the imprint he promised he would make on this Welsh side.

Any talk of him not being allowed to take Wales through to the 2023 World Cup should now have been dispelled.

He will have decisions to make, especially about his senior statesmen who contributed to Wales fielding their most experienced starting side ever in France - with just short of 1,000 caps.

Captain Alun Wyn Jones, 35, and hooker Owens, 34, had outstanding campaigns and show no signs of slowing down.

At the other end of the scale, Rees-Zammit was the emerging star of the tournament, with the 20-year-old scoring four tries and his pace striking fear into opposition defences.

Crowned Champions?

For all the doom and gloom, reflections on the past and thoughts on the future, Wales could still be crowned champions next Friday, though their destiny is not in their hands.

Scotland travel to Paris for the rearranged match following the postponement of the original fixture because of Covid-19 cases in the French camp.

If France are to deny Wales the title, they must beat Scotland with a four-try bonus point and by at least 21 points. They would then triumph on points difference.

If that is equal it will come down to tries, with Wales having five more than France currently. If the sides cannot be separated on tries scored, the title will be shared.

Six Nations table showing: 1. Wales P 5 W 4 D 0 L 1 PD 61 B 4 Pts 20; 2. Ireland P 5 W 3 D 0 L 2 PD 48 B 3 Pts 15; 3. France P 4 W 3 D 0 L 1 PD 41 B 3 Pts 15; 4. Scotland P 4 W 2 D 0 L 2 PD 43 B 3 Pts 11; 5.. England P 5 W 2 D 0 L 3 PD -9 B 2 Pts 10; 6. Italy P 5 W 0 D 0 L 5 PD -184 B 0 Pts 0
If France are to deny Wales the Six Nations title, they must beat Scotland with a four-try bonus point and by at least 21 points to take it on points difference

So the Welsh fans will be Scotland supporters this week, although the Scots have lost their last 10 Six Nations matches in Paris.

Perhaps it is time for Scotland to return a 22-year-old favour. In 1999, Wales defeated England at Wembley with a famous try by Scott Gibbs and a Neil Jenkins conversion in the dying minutes.

Scotland had beaten France in Paris the day before with Gregor Townsend, now the national coach, playing a starring role.

That result gave the Scots an outside chance of winning the last Five Nations tournament - if Wales could deny Clive Woodward's side the Grand Slam in London.

That is exactly what happened as Scotland were crowned champions, the last time they won this tournament.

What Dawson and England experienced that day are the same emotions Wales are feeling now.

More than two decades on, Wales will feel it is time for Scotland to redress the balance as they pray for an away victory or narrow home win in Paris in six days' time.

A Six Nations title win would not wipe away Wales' Grand Slam agony, and not many will forget the astonishing Saturday night scenes they witnessed in Paris.

But it might at least soften the blow.

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