Two nations once renowned for the flair have, in recent years, been written about for rather different characteristics. The Welsh defence, grit, and fitness, saw them win two Grand Slams and a third Six Nations title, reach two RWC semi-finals and miss a third by four points and five minutes, with much of the credit going to their long-time defence coach, Shaun Edwards.
France, meanwhile, haven’t won the Six Nations since their Grand Slam in 2010. They have only come in the top half of the table twice in that period. Moreover, their ability to make the knockout stages of the RWC in that time arguably says more about the teams they played than their own ability, running a palpably nervous New Zealand close in the 2011 final while rarely turning up in the other tournaments.
The exception to that is, of course, their recent quarter-final against Wales. These two sides have a relatively muted historical relationship off the field but, in recent years, it has lit up on the field. The semi-final match in 2011, when Welsh captain Sam Warburton was sent off in the first half, might seem like the start of this rivalry but, really, it kicked off in 2017.
The second match of the final round, this contest saw 20 minutes of overtime before France finally won. The coverage ate into the Grand Slam decider match between Ireland and England that followed. Wales’ Samson Lee received a yellow card with the clock in the red, served his 10 minute suspension, and came back onto the pitch to finish the match. It was chaos.
The aftermath focused on the accusations that France had cheated the HIA regulations in order to get their best scrummager back on the pitch as they pushed, literally, for a penalty try to win the game. Referee Wayne Barnes seemed to suspect as much at the time, allowing the player to leave once informed by a French medic that concussion was a concern but refusing to give the French the penalty try their clear dominance at the scrum deserved. In the end, inevitably, Les Bleus made their way over the line to win the match 20-18.
The reunion in 2018 was far less memorable, with a scrappy victory win in Cardiff on the backs of unrelenting Welsh defence, like so many Welsh wins in this period. In 2019, however, the rivalry burst into life. The opening match of the opening game, in the unloved Friday night spot, saw a true game of two halves.
France played with the oft-mentioned flair of old in the first half, running through the Welsh defence at will and thrilling the crowd. They went in at half-time 16-0 up and, had Morgan Parra been more accurate off the tee, it would have been more. Wales weren’t so much clinging on as finished. No team in the history of the Six Nations had come back from a bigger deficit. No Welsh team had done so in their entire history.
But this was a Wales team who backed themselves to the hilt, no matter the odds, and they came out in the second half transformed, capitalising on French errors and running away to a shock 19-24 victory.
Given all that, it was perhaps no surprise that the RWC quarter-final match between the two sides was another fiercely contested game. Again, France surprised onlookers, tearing into the opening minutes with a verve they had not shown since — well — the last time they played Wales. The men in red, for their part, seemed content to let France attack them at will, despite their success in doing so.
Throughout the tournament, Wales had shown a willingness to let teams attack them and trust their defence, more clinical finishing, and better discipline to win games for them. It worked again here, although they could hardly have expected France to be so obliging as to have a man sent off after 49 minutes. Twice in 2019, French flair was smothered by Welsh pragmatism. Will there be a third time in 2020?
Here, the plot thickens further. The man responsible for those Welsh successes, the aforementioned defence, discipline, and fitness, was defensive guru Edwards, who is now on the other team — quite literally. In the opening round against England, his influence was already clear, with the French phase and scramble defence both dramatically improved. Their attack took the plaudits but their defence was also a revelation.
Wales, on the other hand, are looking to improve their attack under new coach Wayne Pivac and the cost to their defence has been noticeable in the first two rounds. If Pivac can get Wales playing with the skill that his previous teams have shown, this could be a game for the ages. The joie de vivre of Les Bleus meeting the élan of 70s-inspired Wales — could the difference between them once again be Shaun Edwards’ defence?