Slam dunk for Dragons

Wales clinched their second Six Nations Grand Slam in four years when they beat France 29-12 in Cardiff.

Five months ago, Welsh rugby was in crisis. They had failed to progress past the pool stage of the World Cup after losing to Fiji, and coach Gareth Jenkins was shown the door. Almost miraculously, New Zealander Warren Gatland has turned that sad side into Six Nations champions and one that can seriously challenge the Boks in June.

This was a tension-filled Test, as you’d expect from a tournament decider. With France having to win by at least 20 points to claim the Six Nations title on points difference, everyone expected them to throw caution to the wind. Yet Le Bleu never broke lose, and actually played quite conservatively for the majority of the game.

Wales had 70% of the territory in the first quarter and deserved to lead 9-3 after three penalties from flyhalf James Hook (he also missed one). In contrast, France No 10 David Skrela made a nervous start, having a kick charged down and slicing one off the side of his boot.

While France coach Marc Lievremont picked his best XV for this match, his experimental selection policy for the tournament meant this team had never played together. And it showed. France only began to show some continuity in the final 10 minutes of the half, and the pressure paid off in injury time when Wales centre Gavin Henson was sin-binned for a high tackle. France scrumhalf Jean-Baptiste Elissalde kicked his second penalty to make it 9-6 at the break.

But the visitors started the second half poorly, with wing Vincent Clerc trying to run the ball out of his 22, and a couple of crazy passes resulting in another penalty attempt for Hook. Luckily for Clerc and co, the flyhalf’s attempt went wide and two minutes later, Elissalde levelled the scores with his third penalty.

As the match entered the final quarter, Wales were struggling to get their hands on the ball. But the French knocked on in midfield, and Shane Williams hacked the ball ahead. The Welsh winger took off past the two chasing defenders and scored his 41st Test try – the most by a Welshman – under the posts. Stephen Jones – on for Hook – kicked the conversion and added a penalty a few minutes later to give his side a 19-9 lead.

With 15 minutes to go, France had a scrum 10m out from the Welsh line. Had they scored a try then, it was game on, but the home forwards shoved their opponents off the ball to claim the tighthead.

A penalty from replacement scrumhalf Dimitri Yachvili reduced the gap to seven, only for Jones to kick his second penalty. Wales wing Mark Jones then set off on a thrilling 60m run that saw him dart past half a dozen defenders before being brought to ground 2m out from the French tryline. A minute later, flank Martyn Williams sealed the victory with his side’s second try.

Wales – Tries: Shane Williams, Martyn Williams. Conversions: Stephen Jones (2). Penalties: James Hook (3), Jones (2).
France – Penalties: Jean-Baptiste Elissalde (3), Dimitri Yachvili.

By Simon Borchardt