If championships were awarded for artistic merit, this ought to have been enough to secure France a consecutive title. They blew Wales away when it mattered, which was either side of half-time, but they will bemoan the four tries their visitors came away with, three of them scored when it did not really matter, long after the result had been secured.
So France were reduced to waiting on the result in Dublin. They climbed above Ireland at the top of the table, courtesy of that bonus point, but Rio Dyer’s try at the death meant their points difference fell seven shy of Ireland’s. Over to the English, then, whom they so roundly humiliated the week before.
This was not quite that level of humiliation. Indeed, Wales began and finished the match with energy and efficiency. So far from all bad. No doubting, though, who the stars of the show were.
It took France a little while to get going (10 minutes), and Wales were afforded that period to show off their wares. A spring afternoon in Paris looked briefly as if it might get a whole lot more claustrophobic for Wales, when Italy hammered at Scotland’s line in the dying minutes of the earlier game in Edinburgh. Scotland eventually secured the win which meant Wales would be spared the added ignominy of the wooden spoon should they succumb to the fate expected at the hands of these deadly Frenchmen.
So, resigned to fifth place, they drew in the clean air and played their best rugby of the tournament. For 10 minutes or so.
Their forwards off-loaded to each other in punchy combinations, their backs offered an early feel of the leather too. Three times they sent penalties to the corner. At the third, Ken Owens drove to within inches, and Rhys Webb picked out George North for the game’s opening try – and North’s 23rd in the Six Nations, overtaking Shane Williams as Wales’s most prolific.
France could barely get their hands on the ball. That is a condition to frustrate more than just the Stade de France’s clientele these days, such is their facility. But they do not require many touches to make something happen.
Sure enough, within two minutes of North’s try, their forwards had a few rumbles of their own, before their peerless backs took over. Romain Ntamack broke imperiously and flicked a pass off to Antoine Dupont, whose long ball to Damian Penaud was delivered with even greater authority. France had duly responded.
They idly stretched their lead over the next 20 minutes to six with two Thomas Ramos penalties, before blowing Wales away with three tries either side of the break. Ntamack was key again to the second, in the 34th minute, his half-break releasing Ramos. Gaël Fickou went close, before two long passes right found Jonathan Danty in more than enough space for a man of his power to finish.
Wales were grateful for the whistle that signalled the end of the first half, but there was nothing they could do about the one to start the second. France unleashed a pair of set-piece moves with which to rack up the bonus point. They scrummed an early penalty; Dupont broke from the base to within a foot, Cyril Baille carried to within an inch, and Ramos sent Uini Atonio crashing over for his first French try on his 50th cap.
Five minutes later, France hit an even higher note off a line-out. None of this driven-maul business, Danty and Ntamack combined to send Fickou tearing through the Welsh midfield, and the bonus point had been secured within 10 minutes of the resumption – 34-7.
That, obviously, was the game. But a curious rhythm can develop when that happens, not to mention when the dominant team cannot know if they have done enough. France tore Wales open again and again, but with French looseness came opportunity. Wales, to their credit, capitalised, their replacements seeming to raise the tempo.