France topple Wales in 100th minute

Luke PHILLIPS
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France's fly-half Camille Lopez kicks the ball during the Six Nations tournament Rugby Union match between France and Wales at the Stade de France March 18, 2017

Camille Lopez converted a Damien Chouly try after 20 minutes of stoppage time to seal a nail-biting 20-18 victory for France over Wales in the Six Nations on Saturday.

Wales looked like victors at the Stade de France after Leigh Halfpenny booted six penalties to hand the visitors an 18-13 lead going into the closing minutes.

But France, whose gameplan thrived around their monster pack, pressed and had a series of scrums on the Welsh line, Chouly eventually bundled over from close range and Lopez earning the hard-fought win to buck a five-match losing streak to Wales.

It was a remarkable finish to a stop-start game in which both sides suffered from poor execution and a host of inopportune turnovers.

"It's not really a benchmark match for us, but the team showed itself to be coldblooded and calm at the end of this historic match," France captain Guilhem Guirado said.

Welsh prop Samson Lee even had time to serve out his 10 minutes in the sin bin and return to the pitch as English referee Wayne Barnes struggled to keep count of front-row comings and goings.

That included what looked like to be a dubious replacement of Uini Atonio with first-choice tighthead Rabah Slimani after 84 minutes.

"It was an interesting decision that their tighthead went off," Wales skipper Alun Wyn Jones told BBC.

"There will have to be someone looking at that. The technical officials will have to review that.

"But it's irrelevant what happened at the end there. Two wins from five matches is not good enough. We felt we deserved more today and felt we did enough in the 80 minutes to win the game."

France coach Guy Noves was blunt in his reaction to the suggestion of skullduggery, saying: "They told me he (Atonio) was injured and I took my responsibility."

Wales withstood a full-frontal French assault in the opening 20 minutes in which centre Remi Lamerat scored the only try of the first half.

Lopez missed an early penalty and spurned a second attempt to go for touch deep in the Welsh 22m line after a clean break from unheralded La Rochelle flanker Kevin Gourdon, one of the finds of the championship.

They lost the line-out but from the resulting clearance, Lopez was on hand with a clever dink over the rushing defence, Lamerat gathering for the opening try.

Lopez converted, and with the Wales pack creaking at the set piece, No 8 Louis Picamoles and Gourdon ensured the pressure was all on the visitors, George North producing a try-saving tackle as Fijian-born winger Virimi Vakatawa was sent clear.

- Firestorm of a finish -

Lopez extended France's lead with a penalty before Vakatawa was shown a yellow card for knocking down a Dan Biggar pass to North with the line abegging. Halfpenny got Wales on the scoreboard with the resulting penalty and booted a second just before Vakatawa made his return to the pitch.

Against all odds, a third Halfpenny penalty pulled Wales to a one-point difference at half-time.

Rhys Webb was lucky not to get carded for taking out France skipper Guilhem Guirado off the ball early in the second period as the home side ratcheted up the pressure.

Another collapsed Welsh scrum resulted in a penalty and France opted for a second bite rather than going for the posts, but this time Barnes favoured Wales and another opportunity for the home side went begging.

To make matters worse for the French, Halfpenny booted his fourth penalty, from 55 metres, to give Wales the lead for the first time of the game.

Brice Dulin showed why he has usurped South African-born Scott Spedding at full-back for France by producing a couple of jinking runs that set the whistle-happy sell-out crowd alight.

But referee Barnes soon brought the partisan spectators back to reality with another harsh penalty call, Halfpenny kicking his fifth and sixth penalties either side of a second by Lopez.

Then came the French firestorm of a finish, the capacity crowd on their feet for 20 minutes of extra time.

Chouly pummelled over to draw the scores level and Lopez kept his nerve for the winning conversion to ensure France's first victory over Wales since knocking them out of the 2011 World Cup semi-final in New Zealand.