Wales came agonizingly close to pulling off another stunning second half comeback before seeing their hope of glory snatched away in an enthralling encounter at the Millennium Stadium.
For the second game in a row, Wales surrendered a huge halftime lead but although they were able to come back from the dead against Scotland to snatch a last gasp win through a Shane Williams try, Ryan Jones’s men couldn’t repeat history against France, despite Williams dancing his way into the record books on his 33rd birthday when he waltzed over for his 19th championship try in the dying seconds.
On an historic evening where a championship match was being played on a Friday evening for the first time in history, France entered the game searching for their third win on the trot – an accolade never achieved under current coach Marc Lièvremont.
Early on French centre Mathieu Bastareaud gave Wales a torrid time with his powerful running and strong hand-offs giving Jamie Roberts and co the brush off on numerous occasions. The French scrum gave an awesome first half performance with the front row of Nicolas Mas, William Servat and Thomas Domingo giving the French a perfect platform.
The Tricolores showed they meant business from the outset but they were gifted their opening try in the sixth minute when James Hook threw his pass directly to winger Alexis Palisson who coasted to the try-line. Morgan Parra slotted the easy conversion to give France an early 7-0 lead.
Bastareaud ran through the Welsh defence, forcing Martyn Williams into conceding a penalty at the bottom of a ruck. Parra’s trusty left foot sent the 42m kick sailing through the posts.
The French scrum provided a perfect platform for Parra to break from a scrum and even though opposite number Richie Rees appeared to have snaffled the ball legally in the tackle, he was penalised. Parra showed no sympathy by banging over his second penalty to give France a 0-13 lead.
Wales were hanging on grimly to stay in the game but on the stroke of halftime Ryan Jones’s men made things difficult for themselves by gifting France another seven points. Williams danced his way out of trouble, but his pass in the tackle was pocketed by fly half Francois Trinh-Duc, who scooted over without a hand being laid on him. With Parra’s conversion the French had a comfortable 0-20 lead.
The men in red crept back into the game with two early Stephen Jones penalties, which nudged him past Neil Jenkins as the leading points scorer for his country in the tournament.
Unlike the first half Wales played rugby in the right areas as France began to lose their composure.
They earned their reward with a fine try to Leigh Halfpenny who sped down the touchline after Wales took a quick tap. France’s woes were compounded with Parra being sent to the sin bin for a deliberate slap down of the ball.
With 10 minutes remaining Frederic Michalak eased French nerves with a well taken penalty before Parra added another penalty. Williams’s try in the dying seconds brought Wales to within six points but this time Wales couldn’t pull a rabbit from the hat as France confirmed their status as tournament favourites.
Scorers: Wales: Try: Halfpenny, Williams; Con: Jones (2); Pens: Jones (2)
France: Tries: Palisson, Trinh-Duc; Cons: Parra (2); Pens: Parra (3), Michalek.