Saint-Denis, France (AP) — France needed a 100th-minute try 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 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, returned in the 81st for tighthead prop Uini Atonio, who may have been concussed. But Howley suggested it was a premeditated move.
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 consulted with his medical staff about 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.
French players were equally unhappy — for different reasons.
Lock Yoann Maestri felt Barnes should have awarded France a penalty try for their outright dominance in the scrum.
“We were refereed like a small team and it’s very painful. (Barnes) told me that our domination in the scrum wasn’t strong enough.
But they (the Welsh) were rigging every scrum,” Maestri said. “They were letting themselves get turned. It’s down to the referee to spot it. Anglo-Saxon referees keep going on about fair play but they really take us for big cheats and, behind their phlegm, they sometimes lack honesty.”
Maestri felt Barnes lost control.
“I asked him ‘How long are we going to play for?’ I lifted my head up at one stage and we were in the 98th minute … complete madness,” Maestri said. “It was verging on nuclear warfare on the sidelines and the referee didn’t react, and every 30 seconds he was being grabbed (talked to) by a Welshman.
“We couldn’t say anything to him, he doesn’t speak French. There’s always this collusion between them (the Anglo-Saxons) and it’s disconcerting.”
Controversy aside, it was an incredible finish and the sort of never-say-die persistency that France have been guilty of lacking. 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.
When Chouly scored under a pile, there were scenes of pandemonium among home fans.
Although Barnes irked the French, the Welsh complained 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.”
France beat Wales for the first time since the 2011 Rugby World Cup semifinals, ending a run of five losses. France finished third overall, their 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.