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Saturday, 16 February, 2002, 16:06 GMT
Wales denied by French resistance
Wales 33-37 France
Only superb defence by France denied Wales caretaker coach Steve Hansen the perfect start to his reign in a thrilling Six Nations match at the Millennium Stadium on Saturday.
Trailing by four points in injury time, Wales hurled themselves at the wall of blue shirts in front of them, with first skipper Scott Quinnell and then Daydd James having try efforts denied by the video referee.
The agony of such a narrow defeat was clear on Welsh faces, but it was a far better feeling - and a far better performances - than two weeks ago when Ireland ripped them apart at Lansdowne Road in Graham Henry's last game in charge.
France centre Tony Marsh, who played under Hansen in his native New Zealand, returned to haunt his one-time mentor with a brace of tries to condemn Wales to defeat in Cardiff.
Hansen had opted not to tinker too much with the team, with Iestyn Harris dropping to the bench as the only tactical switch.
France, in contrast, went into the game without 10 players missing through injury and suspension.
It quickly became obvious that the hunger and desire had returned to Welsh bellies as they harried their visitors with a new-found urgency.
Fly-half Stephen Jones gave his side the early tonic of a penalty with just 95 seconds on the clock after France prop Pieter de Villiers had prevented quick release of the ball.
Damien Traille levelled the scores soon afterwards with a monster kick from nearly halfway, but Wales - quickly onto anything loose - enjoyed the lion's share of possession and put it to good use.
Full-back Nicolas Brusque was forced to concede a five-metre scrum after Cardiff wing Craig Morgan hacked on a pass from Andy Marinos and shortly afterwards Morgan was brought down inches short of the try-line.
The pressure told, however, with Craig Quinnell grabbing Wales, opening try after nine minutes, his fifth for his country.
Brother Scott paved the way with a powerful charge from a scrum 10 metres out and fly-half Gerald Merceron was left with the hopeless task of trying to stop the giant Cardiff lock from touching down.
Jones' successful conversion made it 10-3 but Merceron cut the deficit to four points with a penalty that followed a superb break by flanker Serge Betsen.
But, as play flowed from end to end, the lead changed hands five times in nine frantic minutes.
France went in front for the first time on 25 minutes when a powerful surge by De Villiers set up the position for Aurelin Rougerie to send New Zealand-born centre Marsh in for the first of his two tries.
Twice Jones nudged the Welsh back in front with his accurate right boot but Merceron made up for his conversion miss with a well-taken drop goal.
The French struck in decisive fashion with another brilliantly crafted score on 34 minutes, Merceron and the lively hooker Raphael Ibanez carving out the opening for Marsh to go over for his second try, Merceron adding the conversion to make it 21-16.
Jones kicked his fifth goal from as many attempts but Merceron restored France's five-point advantage in first-half injury time following a late challenge by Scott Quinnell on Brusque that earned the Welsh captain a spell in the sin bin.
Wales made the worst possible start to the second half and quickly found themselves trailing by three clear scores.
The pacy Rougerie won the race to his own kick ahead, although it needed the intervention of Italian video referee Claudio Giacomel to determine that the Montferrand wing got the touch ahead of Kevin Morgan.
Merceron added the conversion and Scott Quinnell returned just in time to watch him kick a third penalty and extend his side's lead to 34-19 as the French began to establish a strangehold on the game.
However, Wales responded with some enterprising play, much to the delight of the near-capacity crowd, and they gained due reward on 57 minutes when Marinos launched himself at the French defence and popped the ball up for the supporting Nathan Budgett to score.
Jones maintained his 100 per cent record with his sixth goal to close the deficit to eight points and give Wales a sniff of victory once more.
Merceron kicked his sixth goal from seven attempts but Wales piled on the pressure in a dramatic finish and three times the video referee was called on to rule on Welsh touchdowns.
Full-back Kevin Morgan got the nod after winning the race to Jones' kick to the corner and Jones landed the touchline conversion.
But Scott Quinnell, who was unable to ground the ball in a three-man tackle, and James, who was bundled into touch at the corner, both had tries disallowed as time ran out for the battling Welsh.
Wales: K Morgan (Swansea); D James (Bridgend), T Shanklin (Saracens), A Marinos (Newport), C Morgan (Cardiff); S
Jones (Llanelli), R Howley (Cardiff); S John (Cardiff), R McBryde (Llanelli), C Anthony (Newport), C Quinnell (Cardiff), A Moore (Swansea), N Budgett (Bridgend), M Williams (Cardiff), S Quinnell (Llanelli, capt).
France: N Brusque (Biarritz); A Rougerie (Montferrand), D Traille (Pau), T Marsh (Montferrand), X Garbajosa (Toulouse); G Merceron (Montferrand), P Mignoni (Beziers); J-J Crenca (Agen), R Ibanez (Castres, capt), P de Villiers (Stade Francais), T Privat (Beziers), O Brouzet (Northampton), S Betsen (Biarritz), S Hall (Beziers), I Harinordoquy (Pau).
Referee: David McHugh (Ireland).
Touch judges: Pablo Deluca (Argentina) and Rob Dickson (Scotland).
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