Wales 20-26 France, Six Nations, February 26
Wales hit the self-destruct button - again
Graham Jenkins
February 26, 2010
Wales reflect on a defeat to France, Wales v France, Six Nations, Millennium Stadium, Cardiff, Wales, February 26, 2010
Wales reflect on their latest Six Nations defeat at the hands of France © Getty Images

Christmas has come and gone, Valentines Days is a distant memory and Easter remains some way off so it is a little unclear as to what occasion Wales were celebrating in Cardiff but they seemed intent on handing out gifts. As a result France remain on course for the Grand Slam but they owe a debt of thanks to a Wales side that were their own worst enemies at the Millennium Stadium.

For the third Championship match in succession Warren Gatland's side granted their opponents a crucial early advantage and were forced to battle back in a bid to save face. But there was to be no miraculous turnaround like that conjured against Scotland, instead, as against England, they came up agonisingly short.

The result will be all the more frustrating for Gatland and Co as this was a game they could and perhaps should have won. France rarely troubled the Welsh line under their own steam but were able to take a stranglehold on the game as a result of Welsh errors and missed opportunities. Marc Lievremont's side were far from their best and looked ragged for the first time this year as Wales woke from their slumber.

It was France's ability to deliver under pressure that was the difference between the sides. Apart from a brief spell in the second half when they were knocked out of their stride by a resurgent Welsh team, France exuded confidence in each other. The intensity of their defensive endeavours shackled their hosts for much of the game and their assured passing game was again a joy to behold. They clinically took the points as and when the opportunities arose, be they gifts or hard-earned penalties, weathered the impressive late rally from the Welsh and had the nous to end the game and the home side's hopes.

In contrast there appeared to be an air of desperation around Wales from the opening exchanges, as if there was two minutes left on the clock and they were chasing the game. Passes were forced and possession was lost, with first James Hook and then Shane Williams committing basic errors, leaving their side with a mountain to climb once again. Only when they had a chance to re-group at half-time did they steady the ship and abandon the policy of shifting the ball wide in favour of a more rewarding direct approach. But they still lacked the cool heads of their opponents when it mattered most with Lee Byrne's failure to find touch for a crucial attacking lineout stunning for all the wrong reasons.

The error count was horrific but it was the timing of those mistakes and the field position wasted that will be of the greatest concern. Wales have a propensity to hit the self-destruct button time and time again and until they get a grip on that they will always be chasing the game. "We were architects of our own demise," admitted the always blunt Gatland but on this occasion we did not need the Kwi's blunt assessment to pinpoint where this game was won and lost. Where has the disciplined side that captured the 2008 Grand Slam gone?

If they do find themselves in a simlar situation in the future, as you suspect they might, who better to lead that charge than Williams. His 33rd birthday celebrations may be a little muted this evening but he deserves all the praise that is going to come his way for bouncing back from his early error with another master class in finishing that carried him to the magical 50 Test try milestone and saw him eclipse the legendary Gareth Edwards' mark of 18 Championship tries.

Scrum-half Richie Rees also injected some much-needed urgency that bodes well for the immediate future for him and Wales while the blistering pace of Leigh Halfpenny has yet to be fully exploited. It was also a record-breaking day for fly-half Stephen Jones who became Wales' most prolific points scorer in the Championship and he, like Williams, remains a key part of the Welsh armoury who rarely goes missing on the big stage. But that is a skill that the likes of Roberts and Byrne are yet to master.

The defensive pressure exerted by France laid the foundation for their latest victory - the blitz defence snuffing out the danger at the source and forcing the costly mistakes from Wales. Any hope the hosts had of re-igniting the Millennium Stadium roar that had greeted their victory over Scotland were soon doused by a rampant French side. The lineout and the scrum were pillars of strength that held Wales at arm's length while their tidal presence in the loose kept Wales on the back foot and robbed them of the time to think. But when Wales did manage to exert some pressure we saw France wobble for the first time in the Championship - a fact that will not be lost on their next opponents Italy and England.

Mathieu Bastareaud continues to mature as a player while the otherwise impressive Morgan Parra blotted his copybook with a petulant yellow card that could have proved costly. But not for the first time, it was the forwards - and in particular man of the match Julien Bonnaire, No.8 Imanol Harinordoquy and captain Thierry Dusautoir - who proved the most troubling thorns in the Welsh side. But the most plaudits should go to Lievremont for winning the tactical battle in the first half that drew Wales' sting and ultimately set the tone for the game. As a result they can look forward with relish to a home clash with Italy and another against England in what could be a Grand Slam decider. Wales must again pick up the pieces and resume their quest for consistency ahead of a formidable test against Ireland in Dublin.

Graham Jenkins is the Senior Editor of ESPNscrum.

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