Paul Willemse, France’s try-scoring lock, has confessed he was on tenterhooks as the officials deliberated over his knock-on in Cardiff. Wales were chasing the lead when Willemse knocked the ball on as he tackled Ken Owens, with Josh Adams free outside him.
It was one of several key moments in an exhilarating contest. Had the knock-on been deemed deliberate a penalty try and yellow card would likely have followed, the momentum of the match dramatically shifted in Wales’s favour.
“I was looking at the screen thinking, ‘How does it look?’” Willemse said. “Because in slow motion it looks way worse. I was happy when he said, ‘scrum’. I went, ‘oof!’ Those types of call are always 50-50. It could have gone either way. If I tried or not, it doesn’t matter. I knew I had to go all in for the tackle. Luckily it went our way.
“Our side will always think it was nothing, their side will disagree, but it is the decision of the ref in the middle. It’s the same with our disallowed try.”
There is no doubt, the big decisions tended to go France’s way, but few could begrudge them, such have been the horrors they have endured in their last two fixtures against Wales, giving up sizeable leads in the World Cup quarter-final and last season’s Six Nations opener in Paris. France’s disallowed try would have been the best of the match but Anthony Bouthier’s pass in the buildup was forward.
Otherwise, they finally enjoyed a measure of luck, not least when they were awarded a penalty at a scrum a few minutes after Willemse’s infringement, just after their tighthead had been shown yellow following a couple of scrum penalties Wales’s way. Wales were very much aggrieved at that one, claiming that Demba Bamba had bored in across the scrum. Again, it depends which team you support.
What is not in dispute is that France already look made of sterner stuff than the team we have become used to of late. Having not won a grand slam since 2010, having finished in the top half of the table only once since then – they came third in 2017 – they travel to Scotland in a fortnight, looking to set up a tilt at the perfect campaign in Paris against Ireland in the final round. Three tries, the decisive third an intercept by the outstanding Romain Ntamack, were enough to see off Wales.
It is surely not a coincidence the transition from promising performances to hard-edged results has been negotiated with Shaun Edwards in charge of the defence. No less poetic is that this latest display of cussedness should be put on in Cardiff, Edwards’s home for so many years as Wales’s defence coach.
“Everyone was telling me, ‘Remember to go in the right dressing room,’” he said. “And, honestly, I took one step towards the Welsh one and then I remembered and returned.”
The tryline stand of his new team in the approach to half-time was instrumental in France’s win, keeping Wales scoreless when they chose to scrum a series of penalties on France’s five-metre line, trailing 17-9.
“I honestly believe if they’d scored there, Wales would have won the game. It was tough defence, but they did well. The attitude has been first class. They’re really buying into how I want them to defend. And it’s not just that, it’s the style of play as well. French teams in the past maybe overplayed in their own half etc. It’s mixing that French flair with some structured rugby.”
The frustration of Wales’s new coach, Wayne Pivac, is becoming palpable. In many ways, Wales are playing better rugby, certainly in attack, than they did last season, when they won a grand slam. What better place to make it tell than the venue for their next assignment, Twickenham.
“It’s going to be a big challenge, isn’t it? For this team it’s all about improving, but we’re heading in the right direction. We’re putting in long hours and working very hard, and if one or two things had stuck, we’d have been very happy with this performance.”
Wales’s defeat, their first at home in the Six Nations in three years, their first against France in 10, came at a cost. George North was forced off after only 10 minutes with the latest episode in his concerning history of head injuries.
At the other end of the match, his partner on Wales’s other wing, Josh Adams, was also withdrawn with an ankle injury. They have a fortnight to recover, before Twickenham looms on the horizon.