Wales secured second place in the 2018 Six Nations with a narrow win over France at the Millennium Stadium on Saturday, and in doing so managed to bag £2m more in prize money than on offer for the fifth placed team.
Although the Championship had been decided long before kick-off on Saturday evening, with Ireland securing the Grand Slam earlier in the day courtesy of a win over England, that prize money purse still put meaning on the game, with both sides in with a chance of the runner-up spot should they win.
Warren Gatland had welcomed back a number of familiar faces after sending out a much changed side to beat Italy last week, with Rob Evans, Ken Owens, Alun Wyn Jones, Josh Navidi, Dan Biggar, Scott Williams and Leigh Halfpenny all recalled to the starting XV.
However, the chop and change nature of team selection seemed to impact upon the Welsh performance early on. Francois Trinh-Duc got the scoring underway with a drop goal inside five minutes.
However, as brilliant as France can be, they are at risk of moments of stupidity, and they produced a pearler from the restart. Dan Biggar’s kick did not make it the required 10 metres, but with the French not playing the ball, all Alun Wyn Jones had to do was wait for it to bounce the distance and secure possession.
With the away side still bemused by their lack of understanding of the laws of the game, Wales got to work shifting the ball to Scott Williams who produced a perfect kick through for Liam Williams to chase. Trinh-Duc made a complete mess of covering, Liam was able to make an early statement after being yellow carded and substituted in last week’s game.
Leigh Halfpenny missed the conversion, but made amends a few minutes later as he kicked a penalty won at a driving maul, before adding a second following a similar French infringement.
Wales were struggling to get any rhythm into their attacking game though, courtesy of Dan Biggar standing deep from the gain line, a lateral back line, and some physical French defending, and when Gael Fickou released Adrien Pelissie down the right trouble was to be had.
A scramble Welsh defence left big holes in their midfield line, and some quick French ball allowed Fickou to resurface in his natural position of centre to run unopposed to the line. Trinh-Duc’s kick made the score 11-10 at the mid-point of the first half.
The Welsh attack continued to mis-fire, Liam Williams over-running the ball as open field beckoned, but fortunately French ill-discipline gave Leigh Halfpenny the chance to extend the lead, putting the earlier miss behind him.
A 14-10 scoreline was good enough for Wales to go in ahead at the break, and it seemed they had come out with renewed vigour as we counter-attacked just two minutes into the second half. Moving the ball wide early, Taulupe Faletau was able to stretch his legs and produced a wicked body swerve to beat Mathieu Babillot, but Gareth Davies could not collect the final inside pass.
Liam Williams would over-run a pass to waste another good attacking position, as mistakes stunted any attacking progress, but fortunately French inconsistency would rear it’s head and they were unable to take advantage.
Maxime Machenaud drew the visitors to within a point with a penalty 10 minutes into the second half, as the game felt like it could take off.
However it actually descended into a slugfest, with France dominating possession but being unable to breakdown a resilient Welsh defence with their one dimensional power-based attacking play. Cardiff Blues fans will remember their style of attack from our encounters with Toulouse this season.
Two major moments of the game were squandered by the visitors, as both Machenaud and Trinh-Duc missed easily kick-able penalties that ultimately could have won France the game, before a Bradley Davies lineout steal secured the win and second place for Wales.
On the whole, this game was a perfect example of where Wales are at the moment, and in truth it’s not particularly advanced from where we were 12 months ago.
In that time Warren Gatland has gone to, and come back from, a successful British and Irish Lions tour to New Zealand promising a new style of expansive play, based around the 10/12 playmaker system utilised by the Lions, and the exciting attack that Scarlets recent success has been based around.
There were encouraging signs in the Autumn, and the opening round win over Scotland in the Six Nations was a joy to behold. Suddenly I’m really excited about Wales playing. However, as quick as that excitement came, it went away again, as the style of play regressed to one-dimensional attacking play lacking imagination and creativity.
Forwards struggling to secure possession for the backs, a scrum-half who lacks control of the game at crucial times, and the selection of a fly-half who seems almost incapable of taking the ball to the line when wearing a red jersey, have contributed to the attacking performance we saw against France on Saturday.
The big positive of this year’s Six Nations is the strength in depth it has developed just 18 months out from a World Cup. The likes of Wyn Jones, Elliott Dee, Cory Hill, Aaron Shingler, Josh Navidi, Hadleigh Parkes and Steff Evans have all had plenty of game time.
But if we’re going to revert to ‘Warrenball’ which suits none of them, then what’s the point?