By Andrew Baldock, PA Rugby Union Correspondent, Paris
Wales’ poor Guinness Six Nations campaign ended in predictable fashion as France inflicted a 41-28 defeat on Warren Gatland’s team.
Les Bleus ensured the title race with leaders and favourites Ireland ran its distance, as Wales provided some bright moments but were ultimately overpowered, with the Irish left needing victory over England to be crowned champions.
A week after demolishing England at Twickenham, France at times staged another thrilling spectacle of total rugby to triumph in bonus-point fashion.
Wales led through an early George North try that Dan Biggar converted, yet France proved unstoppable on the occasions they reached for the turbo button.
Wing Damian Penaud (2), centres Jonathan Danty and Gael Fickou scored tries, together with prop Uini Atonio, with full-back Thomas Ramos kicking five conversions and two penalties.
Wales, to their credit, kept going in the second half and there were tries for replacements Bradley Roberts and Tomos Williams, and wing Rio Dyer, while Biggar added two more conversions and Leigh Halfpenny one to ensure a losing bonus-point.
But, ultimately, it was a Six Nations campaign that produced four defeats and a fifth-place finish, while it will probably be remembered above anything else for the threat of a players’ strike – albeit averted – over off-field issues ahead of a home game against England.
Wales have just three games left before their World Cup opener against Fiji in Bordeaux and Gatland has a huge amount of work ahead.
Gatland made six changes to his starting line-up, including vastly-experienced trio Biggar, George North and lock Alun Wyn Jones, while number eight Taulupe Faletau won his 100th cap.
France welcomed back Atonio after suspension, with Romain Taofifenua taking over from lock Paul Willemse, who was sidelined due to a hamstring injury.
Wales made a confident start, driving a third-minute lineout from close range, but France managed to hold the ball up and escaped conceding a score.
But Wales were ahead just five minutes later, maintaining relentless pressure and patiently building phase-play before scrum-half Rhys Webb’s defence-splitting pass sent North over for a try that Biggar converted.
France quickly drew level, though, when fly-half Romain Ntamack split open Wales’ defence and skipper Antoine Dupont threw out a long ball to Penaud, who scored, with Ramos’ conversion making it 7-7.
Wales were not daunted by the opposition and they continued to dominate territory and possession, even if France’s scrum began exerting some pressure.
Alun Wyn Jones then went off for a head injury assessment, being replaced by Exeter’s Dafydd Jenkins, and Ramos kicked a 35-metre penalty to nudge France ahead.
Wales encountered increasing difficulty in the scrums and a second Ramos penalty in four minutes pushed France out to a 13-7 advantage.
France now had the bit between their teeth and a second try arrived six minutes before half-time following more sharp work by Dupont.
Although Wales averted initial danger, France’s patience and accuracy meant they still had the visitors in trouble and Danty touched down in the corner, with Ramos converting.
Wales’ early promise and spark had disappeared as France moved through the gears, leaving Gatland’s men with a mountain to climb, trailing by 13 points at the interval.
Wales were immediately on the back foot after half-time and it took France just four minutes to pull further away.
Dupont was typically at the heart of sustained attacks and Wales ran out of defensive numbers as Atonio scored from close range. Ramos’ conversion opened a 20-point gap between the sides.
It was suddenly damage limitation for the visitors, with France securing a bonus-point through Fickou’s 49th-minute try and another Ramos conversion made it 34-7.
Wales gained some consolation through Roberts’ 56th-minute try – his first Test touchdown – and Biggar’s conversion brought the deficit back to 20 points.
Prop Dillon Lewis won his 50th cap when he replaced Tomas Francis, then Williams added a third try for Wales, again converted by Biggar, but the damage had long been done.