France came to Cardiff this evening with a game plan. For the first forty minutes they looked like a cultured Premiership soccer club playing the away leg of a Champion’s League tie. “We know,” they said, “that you are under pressure to win. Our defense is solid, come at us.” So Wales did, and the defense was solid. The longer it held, the more likely it was that Wales would become desperate and try something ambitious, and make a mistake. Mistakes could then be punished, and points scored. Simples, as Aleksandr the meercat would say.
So it was that France went in at half time with a comfortable 20-0 lead. That came from two interception tries, and two penalties given away well inside the Welsh half. In other words, Wales had given France all of those points. France had “won” them simply by being patient and resolute in defense, and mercilessly efficient when pouncing on errors.
The second half was very different. During the break Warren Gatland had clearly reminded the Welsh side that you have to earn the right to go wide. It is just like American football – you can’t throw the ball if you have no running game, because the defense can pack their deep coverage. In the second half Wales ramped up the running game, taking the ball forward close to the ruck and sucking French defenders in. They camped in the French half. France started to make mistakes. Penalties were given, points came.
And then, the moment of opportunity. With the French defense pulled out of shape again, Wales flung the ball wide left. Shane Williams used all of his former scrum half skills to put Halfpenny in the clear on the wing. Stephen Jones slotted the difficult conversion. The lead was down to 7 points, and France had lost their scrum half and goal kicker, Morgan Parra, to the sin bin. If Wales could just capitalize on the man advantage the game was there for the taking.
Instead they blew it. Ten minutes passed, and the only points scored were a penalty to France. The Welsh tactics were better in the second half, but their game was just as error-strewn. Lee Byrne missed two simple kicks to touch that would have given Wales superb attacking lineout position. Excellent attacking opportunities were squandered. Silly penalties were given away.
Shane Williams, on his 33rd birthday, did manage a try to pass Gareth Edwards’ record as Wales’s most prolific try scorer. And Stephen Jones passed Neil Jenkins’ record for total points in the championship. But it is not a day either player will want to remember. Just as against England, they could have won the game, and they threw it away with silly errors.