France 21-16 Wales, Six Nations, Febraury 27
Friday night lights hit the spot
February 28, 2009
France's Sebastien Chabal comforts Wales' Dwayne Peel following the clash at the Stade de France © Getty Images
France coach Marc Lievremont did not have a good word to say about Friday night matches and 9pm kick offs this week but following his side's barnstorming performance here against Wales he is sure to become the biggest fan of the latest Six Nations innovation.
The doomsayers would have liked this commercially-driven idea to have fallen flat; instead tournament chiefs got their wish with a pulsating game that restored our faith in the pulling power of the Championship. Treat us to this kind entertainment each time and soon the Friday night lights at the Stade de France will be rivalling the more familiar glow of the Folies Bergère and the Moulin Rouge as the destination of choice in Paris.
Welsh bass-baritone Bryn Terfel set an impressive tone for the evening with a powerful performance of Mae Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau - almost matched by the rendition of my Scrum colleague John Taylor who was stood next to me.
Thankfully the action lived up to the pre-show billing. Those who had feared the appearance of the side that masquerades as the Les Bleus, this time with a questionable half-back pairing, were soon breathing a sigh of relief.
France were hungry for this one - gone were the memories of the lacklustre showing against Scotland. Instead we were treated to a performance from a side determined to make the most of the occasion and blow this Championship open with a Grand Slam -wrecking ball of a performance.
They maintained an impressive pace for most of the contest - although not quite matching that of the Stade de France's resident band - and not one boo was to be heard from the fickle French support while there was almost an hour on the clock before they remembered they had not performed a Mexican wave!
Those fans, and Lievremont, owe England some thanks for showing them how to de-rail the all-conquering Welsh. England went toe-to-toe with Wales at the Millennium Stadium and were more than a match for them up front. France too made a considerable dent in the normally impregnable red line that is the Wales defence with Imanol Harinordoquy and Matthieu Basteraud vying for man of the match honours. But where England often failed to find the incisive break at the desired moment, France appeared to have the key to unlock their opponents.
In contrast, Wales coach Warren Gatland was a fan of the new Friday night idea when asked this week but he is likely to be reviewing that belief as we speak. Something wasn't right with his side tonight - too many uncharacteristic errors, handling issues and it appeared the lights were causing some trouble and even the TV camera were against them.
But excuses aside, despite flashes of brilliance they were beaten by the better team tonight. The Championship is still very much in their sights and the will be looking for a morale-boosting return to winning ways against Italy next time out. That would set up the much-touted Championship decider with Ireland in the last round of action unless they hit their own bump in the road before then.
There will be lessons for Gatland and co to take from this match including how to deal with the favourites tag. They are not the finished article and both the game against England and this clash will have provided plenty of food for thought. Remember, the northern hemisphere crown remains within their grasp and they will bounce back - watch out Italy.
Defeat against Wales would have been bad news for France and Lievremont. Under pressure for his selection policy and his side's inconsistency, the word amongst the media throng was that France would be happy to be within 10 points come the final whistle - little did we know. Instead of thoughts of a potential Wooden Spoon decider with Italy next month they are back in the hunt themselves and a strong showing at Twickenham in a fortnight's time will silence the critics.
With such an impressive debut, it appears the 'Friday night lights' idea is here to stay - but let's please have a more sociable kick off time. I recall only one acceptable scenario for filing copy post-midnight - that was after 100 minutes of action in the 2003 Rugby World Cup Final and thankfully matches like that don't come around too often.