Late on Saturday night, Fabien Galthie’s French players watched on helplessly from the changing rooms of a deserted Stade de France as Ireland sealed Grand Slam glory with victory over England.
On the streets of Paris, where the bin bags were piled high all weekend amid an ongoing strike by the country’s refuse collectors over a row about raising the country’s retirement age, supporters of Les Bleus reflected on their team falling just short in their bid for back-to-back titles.
Welsh rugby has also felt the impact of worker anger in 2023.
Their players threatened to strike last month over a series of contractual issues in what has been a Six Nations of misery on and off the field.
Warren Gatland’s side suffered a fourth defeat of 2023 in the French capital. Yet, funnily enough, this game also saw Wales show significant signs of promise, especially in attack.
Wales started strong but as France warmed up, a shock upset in Paris looked impossible
France Tries: Penaud 9, 77, Danty 33. Atonio 43, Fickou 48 Cons: Ramos 11, 34, 44, 49, 78 Pens: Ramos 25, 30
Wales Tries: North 7, Roberts 56, T Williams 66, Dyer 80 Cons: Biggar 7, 57, 67, 82
Referee: Nic Berry (Australia)
Star man: Romain Ntamack (France)
The visitors scored four tries. But they also conceded five.
France’s display was not perfect but they were still well worthy of victory and their only sadness was that England couldn’t shock the Irish.
Still, it was further proof that while everything in their political world might not be flawless right now, French rugby is anything but rubbish.
‘We will surprise some teams in the World Cup by how good we will be and how much we will improve,’ said a bullish Wales head coach Warren Gatland.
‘I am confident with the work we will do in the next few months leading to the World Cup that this group of players will get a lot better.
‘We have taken steps in the right direction during this campaign but we have a lot of work to do.’
It might seem bizarre for Gatland to be so positive after a Six Nations in which his team has suffered four defeats and be subjected to all manner of off-the-field distractions.
In 2023, Wales’ best players have had to cope with the strike threat they made ahead of the England game and seeing their country’s game besieged by contractual and financial uncertainty.
The Welsh Rugby Union was also rocked by damaging allegations of sexism on the eve of the tournament. Gatland admitted the distractions have been ‘significant’ and they have undoubtedly had an impact. Ahead of the France game, Welsh rugby’s Professional Rugby Board confirmed out-of-contract players can now officially be offered new ones after months of wrangling. The signing of a new six-year funding agreement between the WRU and its regions is now close too.
France gave themselves hope of the Six Nations title, before Ireland claimed the Grand Slam
Dan Biggar’s opening try got Wales off the mark and showed their fighting spirit straight away
The hope is that Wales will get better from here on the field. They will have to.
‘There is no doubt the stuff that has been going on behind the scenes has been quite significant during this campaign,’ Gatland said. ‘The boys were brilliant in the way they handled it, but when a player in contract is offered 20 per cent of what they are currently on, it is pretty challenging.
‘Then, there are other players with no contracts at all. We also had the other stuff at the start of the campaign as well with the Union in terms of the allegations.
‘It has been testing and challenging.’
It remains the case that Wales are far behind deserving Six Nations Grand Slam champions Ireland and also France. That much was shown in the French capital on Saturday.
After falling behind to a surprising fast Wales start and George North’s early try, France clicked into gear and were guided by their wonderful playmaker Romain Ntamack.
Wing Damian Penaud ended the Six Nations as its top try-scorer with five and bookended the scoring against Wales with another brace.
In between, Jonathan Danty, Uini Atonio and Gael Fickou also crossed.
Thomas Ramos had his eye in as he neatly converted a handful of French tries on home soil
Gael Fickou sprinted through the pack to score France’s fourth of the afternoon on Saturday
France led 34-7 after 50 minutes and another Welsh implosion looked entirely possible at that stage. Yet Gatland’s side not only refused to throw in the towel, but rallied impressively.
Their bench made a big impact.
Replacements Bradley Roberts and Tomos Williams both crossed and wing Rio Dyer scored with the final play as Wales grabbed an unlikely four-try bonus point.
‘The more time we spend together, the better we get,’ said Wales captain Ken Owens.
‘We will raise some eyebrows at the World Cup.’
Crushing losses to Ireland, Scotland and England and the strike threat had put Welsh rugby in despair before they avoided finishing last with victory in Italy.
A loss to France was always going to be likely given the strength of Les Bleus.
Even though France is currently being rocked by strike threats and demonstrations, all is rosy in its rugby garden.
Ireland might be the No 1 side in the world, but France aren’t far behind and they will have home advantage at the World Cup later this year.
After tussling with Fickou, Alun Wyn Jones went off the pitch for a health impact assessment
Wales head coach Warren Gatland will have a lot to do with his side before the 2023 World Cup
‘We have a success rate of 80 per cent in the last four Six Nations,’ said their head coach Galthie. ‘We’ll finish as the best attack in this Six Nations. I hope teams are scared of us now. We’re certainly the team to beat. We do have an impressive victory ratio.’
France’s brute forward power and enterprising back play is a wonderful combination. In Antoine Dupont, Ntamack and Penaud they have majestic players who can cause utter destruction.
They did that to Wales, with Ntamack running the show from No 10. The pinpoint goalkicking of Thomas Ramos is also a major plus for France. He was excellent against Wales.
Gatland’s side are nowhere near France’s level yet. A big six months awaits them.