Six Nations 2014: North centre of attention as Wales thrash France
Six Nations 2014: Wales kick-start their campaign with an emphatic 27-6 win over a previously-unbeaten France in Cardiff
George North and Sam Warburton tries in either half, coupled with 17 points from the boot of Leigh Halfpenny, kept Wales’ hopes of retaining their Six Nations title alive with a convincing 27-6 victory over France.
Heading into Friday night’s clash at the Millennium Stadium, Wales had suffered their heaviest Six Nations defeat since 2006 after losing 26-3 to Ireland in Dublin.
France meanwhile were buoyed by successive wins over England and Italy but North’s power, utilised from outside centre, Warburton’s leadership and Halfpenny’s deadly accuracy saw the 2012 and 2013 champions remain on course for a historic hat-trick of titles.
Warren Gatland was forced into a late change when lock Alun-Wyn Jones fell victim to a foot infection prior to kick-off, meaning Jake Ball was promoted to the starting XV for his first start, but Wales barely seemed affected.
The hosts got off to the perfect start when Halfpenny landed a long-range penalty after just two minutes, and things got even better three minutes later.
It wasn’t the cleanest of lineouts from Richard Hibbard, but with numbers on the left the ball was worked wide to Halfpenny.
His chip bounced favourably for Brice Dulin, but the French full-back collided with scrum-half Jean-Marc Doussain and dropped the ball straight into the path on the rampaging North who gleefully touched down.
Halfpenny slid his conversion wide, but he more than made amends with a strike from the halfway line that extended Wales’ lead to 11-0 after just ten minutes.
France had spent virtually the entire opening 15 minutes inside their own half, but in their first threatening break Yoann Huget thought he had his third try of the Championship, only for play to be called back for a knock-on.
The visitors did get themselves on the scoreboard moments later though when Doussain sailed over a penalty.
A France scrum infringement saw Halfpenny add another three-pointer to his personal tally, while Doussain saw a kick from in front of the posts fly wide on 24 minutes – but the Wales juggernaut had halted somewhat.
North tried to add impetus back into their play with an excellent kick-and-chase that almost caught Dulin out, but the next points fell to France and Jules Plisson, after Doussain was taken off kicking duties.
Halfpenny, very much nursing the tee for Wales, was quick to respond though and finished the half as he started it by firing over his fourth and fifth penalties – handing the hosts a 20-6 half-time advantage.
France, out a couple of minutes before Wales from the changing rooms, started the second half brightly but Plisson couldn’t find the target with his 47th-minute penalty.
Mathieu Bastareaud was lining up his target, namely the Wales try-line, moments later but the centre was held up by a brilliant Rhys Priestland tackle around the ankles – Hugo Bonneval failed to retrieve the offload which would have certainly led to a France try.
Things got worse for the visitors when Louis Picamoles was yellow-carded on the hour mark, following in the footsteps of props Nicolas Mas and Gethin Jenkins, and almost immediately Wales captain Warburton powered his way over to put the game out of sight for France.
Halfpenny added the two points to make it 27-6 with just 17 minutes remaining and Wales rarely looked troubled thereafter.
France did manage to put some phases together with Picamoles off the pitch, but Wales’ defence held firm even when the No.8 returned to open up a fascinating race for the 2014 Six Nations title.