Wales kicked the Autumn International campaign off with a heavy defeat against France in Paris, shipping five tries in a 38-21 loss at the Stade de France.
Wayne Pivac had largely stuck with the side that guided Warren Gatland through the latter years of his tenure, recalling leaning on the likes of Samson Lee, Cory Hill, Rhys Webb, Dan Biggar, Jon Davies, George North and Leigh Halfpenny, with the only new faces being Rhys Carre, Aaron Wainwright and Nick Tompkins, while Sam Parry and Louis Rees-Zammit were set for debuts off the bench.
It was a flying start for Wales after Gregory Alldritt fluffed the kick-off and conceded a lineout in his own 22. The away side secured possession and moved the ball beautifully from left-to-right where Leigh Halfpenny was on hand for the easiest of run-ins, with Dan Biggar converting and adding another three points a few minutes later after Julien Marchand was penalised.
However it only took a momentary defensive lapse from the men in red and France were back in the game as Romain Ntamack roared through a gap in midfield and found Antoine Dupont on his shoulder. The scrum-half was pulled down short but Cyrille Baille was on hand to power over a few phases later, with Ntamack adding the extras to make the score 7-10.
Biggar added another three off the tee when France were penalised at the lineout but after a hectic start the game began to settle down with both sides battling to win dominance in the air on a wet and windy Paris night.
In the end it was the home side who asserted their authority and two moments of magic opened up a Wales defence making the same errors it made back in February and March.
First the visitors were caught narrow as Virimi Vakatawa got to the edge of the defence and produced an offload that took Dan Biggar and Josh Adams out of the game to release Teddy Thomas. The winger found Antoine Dupont on his inside shoulder to score.
Then a few minutes later a second defensive lapse saw more poor spot blitzing in midfield as Gael Fickou put Vakatawa into space and Dupont was in support once again for two tries in a short space of time. Romain Ntamack added the two conversions for a 21-13 France lead at the break.
The home side continued to press early in the second half, with only an excellent Jon Davies tackle preventing another try, while Dan Biggar and Romain Ntamack traded penalties with both teams being penalised for infringements on the floor.
Wales did have chances to put Les Bleus under pressure but attacking sets struggled to get off the ground as the structure of the forwards too often resulted in understaffed attacking breakdowns preventing quick or clean ball and leaving the half-backs on the back foot. With Biggar now inaccurate off the tee the game was fast slipping away from the away side.
With 20 minutes to go the game was put to bed as a high ball wasn’t dealt with and Antoine Dupont pounced on the loose possession to make a sharp break and put Charles Ollivon away under the posts with Romain Ntamack adding the extras.
Wales did score a consolation try when Ntamack failed to deal with Nick Tompkins’ kick through, and Nicky Smith finally powered over after some patient attack from the men in red, but Biggar couldn’t convert.
The final word was left to France and they finished the scoring off in style as Francois Cros sniped down the blindside from a breakdown and offloaded for Teddy Thomas who chipped over Biggar perfectly and scored in the corner. Ntamack converted brilliantly from the touchline and the score showed 38-21 as the final whistle blew.
A fourth defeat in a row for Wayne Pivac’s men, the first time Wales have lost four in a row since 2016, is a tough way to start the Autumn International window, and the pressure will no doubt increase on Pivac and defence coach Byron Hayward as few improvements were seen from February and March.
Defeat against France next week would leave Wales finishing fifth in the Six Nations having won the Grand Slam last year, a big change in 18 months. Plenty to ponder for the coaching staff…