France needs 21 minutes of injury time to beat Wales in 6N
SAINT-DENIS, France (AP) — France needed 21 minutes of injury time to beat Wales 20-18 in an astonishing end to their Six Nations rugby game on Saturday.
The seemingly unending drama included an alleged bite of Wales wing George North, a yellow card to prop Samson Lee, and persistent penalties against Wales, but their coach Rob Howley was mostly incensed with France's late substitutions, and openly questioned whether the French bent the rules.
"What happened in the last 10 minutes shouldn't happen again in an international game," Howley said. "Integrity in our game is pretty important."
Leigh Halfpenny's faultless goalkicking put Wales 18-13 up and seemingly on course for a sixth straight win against the French. But the Welsh fell apart in added time.
With the tension bordering on hysterical at Stade de France, replacement loose forward Damien Chouly finally found enough of a gap to squeeze over. Camille Lopez landed the conversion and winning two points in the 21st minute of injury time, and sank to his knees in desperate relief.
But an emotional Howley was more concerned by what he perceived to be the French toying with preventative head injury rules to protect players from concussion, and conjuring up an injury in order to swap props at the beginning of stoppage time.
Rabah Slimani, who'd left in the 55th minute, swapped back in with tighthead prop Uini Atonio in the 81st for suspected concussion. But Howley suggested it was a premeditated move.
"The process leading up to the change of the French tighthead, the way that process occurred, we love our game too much to have those decisions ... hugely disappointing," Howley said.
He stopped short of calling it cheating when asked directly if it was.
"I just question the integrity of our game, of the decision," he said. "If you want to call it (cheating) it's entirely up to you."
He offered evidence.
"One of their coaches outside their technical area had a conversation with their doctor, and within one minute (Slimani) comes on," Howley said. "We'll look through the whole footage. It's pretty obvious what happened."
France coach Guy Noves was evasive, saying he hadn't had time to consult with his medical staff as to the nature of Atonio's injury.
Howley did not blame English referee Wayne Barnes.
"That wasn't Wayne's fault, he listened to a medic," Howley said. "If he's a referee and he's told the (head injury) process needs to take place, it's that trusting of the information."
Howley added he spoke to Barnes after the game but declined to reveal what was said.
The controversy added to an incredible finish.
"It was a heroic match. As an old man I've never seen anything like this," Noves said. "We can be proud of our players. There are values in rugby, people say, and the team showed that."
It was the sort of never-say-die persistency that France has been guilty of lacking in the recent past. France seemed to be throwing away another win after center Remi Lamerat's converted try and Lopez's penalty made it 10-0 after 16 minutes.
Halfpenny kicked Wales ahead with six penalties. Near the end of regulation time and on into injury time, the French camped in the Wales 22 and the crowd roared "Poussez! Poussez!" (Push! Push!). Scrum after scrum, the Welsh held under intense pressure, forcing the kickoff in Dublin, where Ireland beat Grand Slam-chasing England, to be delayed.
There were 99 minutes, 58 seconds on the clock when Chouly scored under a pile, setting off scenes of pandemonium among home fans and sheer despair for the Welsh.
"Their desire, fortitude and backs-against-the-wall stuff was outstanding," Howley said of his players.
Barnes irked the French fans all game with his policing, but by the end the Welsh were also unhappy, complaining that fullback Brice Dulin bit North, which would have ended the game with Wales ahead.
"The evidence was inconclusive," Howley said. "There's evidence to suggest otherwise on George's arm."
Noves dismissed it. France beat Wales for the first time since the 2011 Rugby World Cup semifinals, ending a run of five losses to Wales.
France finished third in the tournament, its best result in six years. The Welsh were fifth.
"The players proved something to themselves today," Noves said.
Howley takes home a different memory of the game.