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6N: Unbeaten France ends Wales title defense in thriller

(AP Photo/Rui Vieira)

CARDIFF, Wales (AP) France stayed unbeaten in the Six Nations and ended Wales' title defense after taking a thrilling contest 27-23 at Principality Stadium on Saturday.

France's tyros -- most of the team are playing their first Six Nations -- showed poise in the biggest moments against the most experienced side ever fielded in the championship. Wales put out 859 caps worth of talent. France had 234.

But the fearless, uninhibited attitude of this revamped French side earned them a first win in Cardiff in 10 years while playing a man short for 20 minutes.

Halfway through the Six Nations, which they also haven't won in 10 years, the French are set to be playing for the title on the last weekend in Paris against Ireland, which is also unbeaten. France goes to Scotland next in two weeks.

France scored three tries to two and had another disallowed, but its defense - masterminded by Shaun Edwards, who was the Wales defense coach for the last 12 years - was even more incredible.

"You could feel after the game he was pleased," France manager Raphael Ibanez said of Edwards. "It was an awesome performance from our defence."

They enjoyed some big moments.

As the first half was heading into injury time, France led 17-9 with No. 8 Gregory Alldritt in the sin-bin for a professional foul. Wales had a trio of five-meter scrums but France, with wing Gael Fickou at the back of it, held. The defense on the line and rush behind the scrum also repelled everything Wales threw at it, to the point Wales was forced to backpedal and cracked.

In the 52nd minute, Wales had just scored to trail 17-16, and had a three-on-one. But France flyhalf Romain Ntamack stood his ground and read Nick Tompkins' pass to pull off a 55-meter interception. Instead of losing the lead, France extended it to 24-16.

France lock Paul Willemse pulled off another huge stop. Wales had another overlap meters out from the French tryline but Willemse knocked the ball down while tackling hooker Ken Owens. The action went to the TMO and Willemse risked conceding a yellow card and penalty try, but it was deemed legal.

Soon after, France tighthead prop Mohamed Haouas was yellow-carded for illegal scrummaging in front of his tryline. Demba Bamba was sent on and Fickou moved back into No. 8, and they destroyed the Wales scrum to earn a relieving penalty.

Finally, flyhalf Dan Biggar scored a converted try to put Wales within four points of France with five minutes to go. In the dying seconds, Tompkins speared up the middle to the French 22, the sell-out crowd was on its feet, but France replacement hooker Camille Chat tied up the ruck ball to win the penalty and clinch the deserving win.

"It is having pride in the line, thankfully these French guys do," Edwards said.

"If we can improve our possession count (41% against Wales) we can be a real threat for winning the trophy."

Following the defeat to Ireland in Dublin, Wales lost a championship match at home for the first time in more than three years.

Coach Wayne Pivac wasn't impressed with the officials' rulings.

"It just seemed, whenever we were playing advantage, the next ruck was killed or the ball was slowed down so we came back for the penalty," Pivac said.

"There was the (Willemse) slap down. We had a good look at that and I think the officials may have got that one wrong. That killed momentum there as well.

"Another disappointing one was when the French tighthead (Bamba) came on. He went straight across the scrum and was rewarded for that. Those were the big moments in the game."

But not much went right in the first half for Wales.

Fullback Leigh Halfpenny spilled an Ntamack bomb, and counterpart Anthony Bouthier accepted the kind bounce for the opening try.

Then concussion-prone George North took an accidental elbow to his head from Fickou in the 11th minute and didn't return.

Fickou had a brilliant team try disallowed by a forward pass four passes earlier, but moments later Willemse burst from a lineout maul on the blindside, bowled over North's replacement Johnny McNicholl, and stretched out over Wales prop Dillon Lewis to score.

France blew leads against Wales last year: 16-0 in Paris, and 19-10 in the Rugby World Cup quarterfinals. Both matches ended in defeats. It had made nearly 80 more tackles than Wales by halftime, and fatigue posed a new threat.

That was underlined as Lewis scored his first test try for Wales, roared on by the capacity crowd. But they were deflated minutes later by Ntamack's intercept try.

There was irony when Wales prop Wyn Jones, who claimed the France scrum cheated, was penalized in the scrum and replaced.

Biggar, coming back from his third concussion in five months, matched Ntamack by nailing all five of his goalkicks and scoring a try. He helped Wales threaten another comeback win at France's expense, but the visitors held their nerve.


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Updated February 22, 2020