Man behind the match: Williams double downs France in Paris

There are few tests in world rugby more daunting than a trip to the Stade de France – but that’s the challenge facing Wales on the opening weekend of the 2019 Guinness Six Nations.

There are few tests in world rugby more daunting than a trip to the Stade de France – but that’s the challenge facing Wales on the opening weekend of the 2019 Guinness Six Nations.

Warren Gatland’s men will hope to take inspiration from the Welsh side that triumphed 24-18 against the hosts in Paris in 2005 en route to claiming an historic Grand Slam title.

And no one remembers that dramatic game more fondly than Martyn Williams, who scored both tries as Wales overcame a first-half deficit to defeat Les Bleus in their own backyard.

In the first of our Man Behind The Match series, Wales’ former most-capped forward gives us an insight into the game and the implications it had on the Championship.

For tickets to France v Wales in the 2019 Guinness Six Nations click here

Wales came into the Six Nations in buoyant mood following a string of good performances during the 2004 autumn Test series, and claimed victory against England in their opening game.

They followed up their first win against the Red Rose in Cardiff for 12 years by seeing off Italy 38-8 in Rome to set up a fascinating encounter against the defending champions France.

Recalling the build-up to the game, Williams admitted no one in the Welsh camp was even contemplating a first Grand Slam triumph in 27 years before the France game.

“We’d had a good autumn series and we’d beaten England, which was a massive win for us because we hadn’t beaten them since 1999, and then went to Italy and won well,” he said.

“But France had won the Six Nations the year before and someone has since pointed out that they also won it in 2006 and 2007, so they had a hell of a team and we didn’t think we could win the Grand Slam.

“We always knew, even though we’d won those first two games, the French game was going to be so tough because of the players they had and the team they had.

“We were confident going into it but going to Paris, and the form they were in as defending champions, we always knew it was going to be a massive game for us.”

The visitors were right to be wary of France ahead of the game – Bernard Laporte’s men burst out of the blocks as they surged into a 15-6 lead at half-time.

Dimitri Yachvili and Aurelien Rougerie both crossed the whitewash and Williams said it could have been much worse had a couple of Stephen Jones penalties not kept Wales in touch.

“They blew us away in the first half and the game should have been over, but we just hung on in there and made some great last-ditch tackles, just kept them in sight,” he said.

“I remember Stephen Jones kicked the penalty just going into half-time which got us back to 15-6 and that gave us a little bit of optimism at the break.

“It was a little bit chaotic at half-time because we lost our captain [Gareth Thomas broke his thumb] and everyone says it must have been some sort of amazing speech at half-time – it might have been, but I can’t remember it.

“We couldn’t play any worse than we had done in that first half, but on the flip side the French probably switched off a little bit because it had been so easy for them.”

Jones was once again key to the fightback after the restart, breaking from his own half before the ball was recycled to Williams for the flanker to score Wales’ first try.

The visitors had momentum on their side and dotted down again four minutes later courtesy of another Williams’ score to edge in front, 18-15, for the first time in the game.

“We caught them unawares at the start of the second half and I think Stephen Jones again kick started it with an unbelievable break in our own 22,” said Williams.

“It was a mad three or four minutes straight after half-time. The momentum did change and that first try I scored got us to within a score and then we got back down there and scored again.

“There was still 36 minutes to go though and when I went over for the second try there was no way we thought that’s it, we’ve won, it was just a crazy four minutes really.

“We caught fire I suppose but they had a great team and came right back at us.”

A further penalty from Jones, plus a drop goal, saw Wales move into a 24-18 lead going into the final ten minutes of the game – and Williams remembers the closing moments vividly.

“The work we did defensively after going in front was huge,” he said. “Stephen Jones got a drop goal late on and for me he was the man of the match, but because I scored the tries everyone associates me with that game.

“Momentum is a funny thing as once you lose it, it’s so hard to get it back and we did have it for that initial spurt after half-time and in the end, it was an unbelievable defensive effort really.

“If you watch the last five minutes the boys were just throwing themselves at the French and we were just hanging on until the death really.

“The relief at the end of that game was massive – that we had just managed to hang on in there and win away in Paris against such a good team.”

Wales did not look back after their stunning win in Paris, defeating Scotland 46-22 at Murrayfield before clinching the Grand Slam against Ireland in Cardiff.

Williams added: “We hadn’t spoken about Grand Slams or Championships until that point because we knew even if we won the first two games we would have that huge test of France in Paris.

“After that was when, not only as a group but the whole country, we were looking at it and thinking, ‘Oh my god we could win it’ – and we hadn’t won the Grand Slam in 27 years.

“That’s when you start thinking about it, but we still had a tough game up in Murrayfield and we had to face Ireland but the momentum after that French game was huge – we felt a bit invincible.”

France 18

Tries: Yachvili, Rougerie

Cons: Yachvili

Pens: Yachvili

Drop goals: Michalak

Wales 24

Tries: M Williams (2)

Cons: Jones

Pens: Jones (3)

Drop goals: Jones

France: J Laharrague, A Rougerie, Y Jauzion, D Traille, C Dominici, Y Delaigue, D Yachvili, S Marconnet, S Bruno, N Mas, F Pelous (c), J Thion; S Betsen, Y Nyanga, J Bonnaire

Replacements: W Servat, O Milloud, G Lamboley, I Harinordoquy, P Mignoni, F Michalak, J-P Grandclaude

Wales: G Thomas (c), K Morgan, T Shanklin, G Henson, S Williams, S Jones, D Peel, G Jenkins, M Davies, A Jones, B Cockbain, R Sidoli, R Jones, M Williams, M Owen

Replacements: R McBryde, J Yapp, J Thomas, R Sowden-Taylor, G Cooper, C Sweeney, R Williams