Wales produced a gutsy display of tenacious defence to beat France 29-12 in Cardiff on Saturday to claim their second Six Nations grand slam in four years.
The Welsh completed their remarkable transformation from a side that crashed out of last year’s World Cup in the group stages to conceding only two tries and finishing unbeaten after five games of European rugby’s showcase tournament.
Wales tellingly punished France with five penalties for ruck infringements, three from James Hook and two from Stephen Jones.
In addition, winger Shane Williams became Wales’s record try scorer with a touchdown under the posts, and outstanding flanker Martin Williams scored with five minutes remaining. Both were converted by Jones.
Jean-Baptiste Elissalde hit back with three penalties and Dimitri Yachvili one for a French side that failed to break down the home side’s robust blitz defence fashioned by assistant coach Shaun Edwards.
”Sensational” was how the former Wigan and Great Britain rugby league legend summed up Wales’s achievement.
Wales coach Warren Gatland added: ”These players have given more than we as coaches have asked of them. They’ve improved from game to game. We’ve won a grand slam, but we don’t want to stop here. South Africa are the number-one team in the world, we go there in the summer …”
Winning captain Ryan Jones described the result as ”something special”. He added: ”This is absolutely amazing. There were always moments of doubt, but we defended superbly and that’s what won us the championship.”
Shaun Williams, the man of the match, reflected: ”This just goes to show how hard we’ve worked since the World Cup. My try was one in a million.”
In complete contrast to the era of former coach Gareth Jenkins, who was sacked in the wake of the side’s World Cup nightmare, the Welsh showed themselves capable of withstanding wave after wave of French attack.
Although the defensive model sometimes exposed the front five out wide, support from the impressive centre pairing of Gavin Henson and Tom Shanklin, as well as fullback Lee Byrne, was quickly on hand to help out.
France retained possession for a concerted three-minute spell early in the game played under a closed roof, but it was Wales who went closer to opening the scoring, winger Mark Jones slipping on the slick pitch as he tried to sidestep the last French defender.
Hook kicked an eighth-minute penalty after a stray French hand in a ruck but missed a second effort five minutes later following some more sustained Welsh pressure.
French centre Yannick Jauzion then produced a try-saving tackle on Byrne after good hands from Martin Williams and Henson saw the ball move wide.
Two further French ruck infringements were penalised by Hook, with Elissalde knocking over one for the French after Wales failed to release the ball after a well-placed up-and-under from Anthony Floch.
Elissalde reduced the arrears to three points with a second penalty in injury time of the first half, shortly after Henson had been yellow-carded for a high tackle on flanker Fulgence Ouedraogo.
Hook missed a second penalty three minutes into the second half after Vincent Clerc took the wrong decision to run out of his own 22m area, and with Henson still off the pitch, Elissalde was successful with a third penalty to draw France level.
Then up stepped Shane Williams to become the highest try scorer for Wales with 41, chasing on to a spilled French ball in midfield and outsprinting Floch to touch down under the posts.
Stephen Jones hit the extras and then nailed a penalty with 15 minutes of the game to go after yet more French ill-discipline at a ruck.
The Welsh front five then shoved the France pack off their own ball at a 5m scrum, a raft of replacements were made, and man-of-the-match Martin Williams ensured Wales an outstanding end to the Six Nations season with a well-taken try, also converted by Jones. — Sapa-AFP