The Grand Slam dream is alive and well for France after they foraged to earn a hard-fought 13-9 Six Nations win over Wales on a frosty Friday night in Cardiff.
Much was made of the number of unsold tickets at the Principality Stadium—the smallest attendance since the ground opened in 1999—but the Welsh nonetheless gave France a fierce run for their money.
Ultimately, though, it was Fabien Galthie's squad whose riches in talent came up with the goods to make it four wins from four, setting up a climactic Grand Slam decider at home to England next Saturday.
Toulouse flanker Anthony Jelonch scored the only try of the game as Wales captain Dan Biggar converted three penalties to go along with his instrumental touches kicking out of hand.
Wales head coach Wayne Pivac hailed his side's "very big effort" but bemoaned their missed chances: "We were in it right to the end. We are just very disappointed not to get the win obviously.
"We have got to make sure that the opportunities we create, we take them."
A fast start was considered crucial if Wales were to record an unlikely upset against the table leaders, and Melvyn Jaminet's second-minute penalty didn't help foster any confidence for Pivac's side in that regard.
There were certain signs of fight as Biggar swiftly responded with a three-pointer of his own, though Wales struggled to capitalise despite their early incisions into French territory.
Their dread came to fruition when a French overlap found Jaminet down the left, with the Perpignan full-back slotting Jelonch in to score almost unopposed.
Wales were at the centre of debate this week for allowing prop Tomas Francis to play despite the head injury he suffered against England two weeks ago, and the team were subject to more of the same on Friday.
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Two more early head knocks hampered their chances, with scrum-half Tomos Williams coming off for Kieran Hardy while Wyn Jones was only a temporary stand-in for loosehead Gareth Thomas.
And yet Wales proved unfazed by the changes, trading blow for blow with the favourites and matching France in the aerial duel, which Galthie's men had clearly targeted as a battlefield of choice.
Signs of desperation (in part fuelled by apparent exhaustion) appeared when Jaminet attempted a limp drop goal from 35 yards with seconds remaining in the half, giving up France possession with few options available.
The No. 15 extended the guests' lead to 13-9 with a penalty soon after the restart, signalling the start of a scoreless final 34 minutes in Cardiff.
Whether it was a case of fatigue setting in for France or Pivac simply getting his tactics spot on, Wales had succeeded in giving Les Bleus their sternest so far in the competition.
That stubborn sense was apparent when Jonathan Davies almost proved the difference-maker after the hour mark, when Biggar's cross-field kick found a wide-open Taulupe Faletau on the left wing.
The No.8's quick thinking floated the ball to an onrushing Davies infield, but the Test centurion just failed to gather as Antoine Dupont cleaned up what might have been the match-winner.
Replacement lock Thibaud Flament was perhaps fortunate to remain on the field barely a minute after he entered the field, judo-throwing Josh Adams over his shoulder at the breakdown for a Wales penalty.
That was but one incident in the final quarter-of-an-hour indicating French nerves were running high, with Pivac's hosts asking the bulk of the questions and taking a tight grip on possession.
The final piece of the puzzle continued to elude, however, and France emerged as narrow 3-0 winners in the tetchiest of second periods, while Wales failed to add to their first-half haul.
Former Wales defence coach Shaun Edwards deserves his credit for that reason, having transformed France's tenacity off the ball since taking up the same role with Les Bleus in 2020.
In fact, this was the first instance in which Wales had failed to score a try in a home Six Nations match since they welcomed Ireland in 2009.
Record-low attendance or not, the hosts could afford to hold their heads high following what was their most complete performance of the tournament thus far.
Biggar—who could be considered unfortunate not to be named Player of the Match—called the result "very, very disappointing" and lauded Wales as "the better team for large periods of the game."
"I am so proud of the way the lads stuck to it against the form team in world rugby at the minute," he continued.
"That's a bit more like us in terms of attitude, and probably something we didn't quite show in the first half against England and Ireland."
Pivac's men temporarily climb to fourth in the standings with a losing bonus point, although Scotland will be backed to reclaim that spot after they face Italy in Rome on Saturday.
France, meanwhile, shift their focus to next weekend's blockbuster against England, who may or may not still be in with a shot at the crown depending on Saturday's result at home to Ireland.
Galthie & Co. have rarely looked out of sorts over the last five weeks, although Eddie Jones may consider Friday's performance the first real sign of cracks appearing in the French facade.
WALES – Pens: Biggar 3.
FRANCE – Try: Jelonch. Con: Jaminet. Pens: Jaminet 2.
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