George North crossed for a second-half double as Wales produced an astonishing and historic fightback to down a France side that shot themselves in the foot after the break.
Les Bleus were an absolute delight in the first half of this 2019 Guinness Six Nations opener on a wet Friday night in Paris, Louis Picamoles and Yoann Huget both crossing as they opened up a richly-deserved 16-0 lead.
At the start of the second Tomos Williams crossed to threaten a Welsh fightback, but Jacques Brunel’s side were their own worst enemies thereafter – handing North his double on a plate.
First, Huget spilled a ball under no pressure in his dead ball area and North pounced.
And then, late on after France had re-taken the lead through the boot of Camille Lopez, Sebastien Vahaamahina threw a suicidal pass that North picked off to speed clear.
And Warren Gatland’s side then held on to secure a victory he must have feared had gone begging at the break. Instead, they kick off their Championship in perfect style and have now won ten Tests on the spin.
For France, it is a case of what might have been after a dynamic first half that faded so quickly in the second.
The wet weather made it look like free-flowing rugby might be at a premium, but Les Bleus made light of the conditions in the first half.
Huget was already looking threatening and the first try arrived from a fine team move, backs and forwards both involved before Maxime Medard released Picamoles to cut back and dive over. Kicking from the tee was proving very tough and Morgan Parra missed the conversion as well as a subsequent penalty meaning French dominance of the first quarter had only returned a 5-0 lead.
But up the other end Gareth Anscombe, perfect from the tee in last year’s Championship, was similarly wayward while Welsh handling errors were racking up.
Liam Williams was almost single-handedly leading the charge from full-back and should really have put Gatland’s side on level terms when he went bursting through with Jonathan Davies on his outside. However, instead the No.15 held onto the ball, and appeared to squeeze over the line before the TMO spotted a knock on and the chance was gone.
Les Bleus seemed to grow in confidence still more after that let-off, Picamoles and Athur Iturria to the fore for a massive but surprisingly mobile French pack.
And it was the latter who produced the sumptuous offload to put Huget streaking clear down the left for the game’s second try. Again Parra’s conversion leaked wide, but Anscombe was having the same issues for Wales from the tee.
And while Shaun Edwards’ much-vaunted Welsh defence was not breached for a third time in the first half, the boot of Camille Lopez extended the hosts’ advantage.
He took over the kicking duties from Parra, slotted a penalty from in front and then a drop goal on the stroke of half time and France were deservedly in the lead 16-0 against a shellshocked Wales.
WALES FIGHT BACK
But the second half was a totally different story, and right from the off.
First Josh Adams went searing into the clear and put Tomos Wiliams over for a try on his first start for his country.
And then Huget went from hero to villain, the winger chasing an aimless Anscombe kick to the in-goal area but then spilling it under virtually no pressure and North gleefully pouncing.
Anscombe could not miss the extras and in a flash, Les Bleus’ lead was down to two points at 16-14.
Dan Biggar was now on and as the game entered the final quarter, despite Ross Moriarty’s disallowed try, Wales were on top.
And they hit the front for the first time when Biggar showed customary poise to drill a penalty and make it 17-16.
Both benches were emptied and Lopez drilled a penalty from in front to put France back in front before disaster struck again.
North pounced, and then the defence held on to become the first team to overcome a 16-point half-time deficit in the history of this famous old Championship.
WHAT THEY SAID
Wales skipper Alun Wyn Jones: “I’d be lying if I didn’t say that was a relief. Credit to George North and the defence, who came through in the conditions.
“You think of all the stuff that was created today and a couple of those were from sheer effort. But the conditions won the game more than we did.
“We hold our hands up and say we came out a bit cold in the first half but we learnt pretty quickly at the start of the second half as we should have.”
PLAYER WATCH – George North
The Welsh back row tackled everything that moved as the game wore on and Louis Picamoles was France’s destroyer in chief in the first half.
But man of the match could only be North, the winger bagging a double with two predatory finishes – although French errors made his life much easier than it should have been.
France had re-gathered their composure after the hour mark and re-taken the lead when Lopez slotted a penalty to put them back 19-17 in front.
But no sooner had they done that, than they shot themselves in the foot as Vahaamahina threw a suicidal long pass and North pounced to seal the win.