Six Nations 2021: Wales pay the penalty as France dash Grand Slam hopes at the death

By Sports Desk March 20, 2021

So near and yet so far for Wales, who saw a Six Nations Grand Slam slip from their grasp when France conjured up a magical finish in Paris to keep their tournament hopes alive.

Les Bleus looked dead and buried when they trailed 30-20 in the second half, only to produce a late, late show that means the identity of the 2021 champions remains unknown, at least for a few more days.

Perhaps it should not have come as a surprise that a crazy contest in the French capital ended in such astonishing fashion, though.

The two teams had played the game as if it was on fast forward in the opening quarter, sharing four tries during a frenetic first half that finished all-square, allowing all – playing and watching – to draw breath.

Wales, however, seized control after the break, Josh Adams' try – along with the boot of Dan Biggar – helping establish a double-digit lead. Another Six Nations sweep seemed a sure-fire certainty when Paul Willemse was sent off, the lock punished for making contact with an opponent's eyes.

The dismissal left France down to 13 at the time, prop Mohammed Haouas already sitting watching from the sidelines while spending 10 minutes in the sin bin.

Yet rather than accept the inevitable, the red card instead galvanised Les Bleus. As Wales became the team to lose their discipline, leading to yellow cards for Taulupe Faletau and Liam Williams, the hosts worked up a head of steam to come roaring back.

Charles Ollivon's converted try cut the gap to three and, on the final play with the clock having ticked beyond the 80th minute, France retained and recycled possession long enough to eventually create space out wide for Brice Dulin to dart over, in the process breaking Wales' hearts.

A championship devoid of fans due to the coronavirus pandemic had served up a visual treat for all those watching on from afar.

"I thought we were pretty good for 80 minutes, it was just those dying seconds," Wales captain Alun Wyn Jones told BBC Sport.

"Our ill-discipline probably brought a lot of pressure on. Credit to France for the way they played in the last 15 minutes, but when we look back at it, probably the ill-discipline brought all that pressure on, as well as good French play."

Wyn Jones knows what it is like to secure Grand Slam glory, having done so three times previously in his international career. Now he has experienced the disappointment of coming up just short. A game that was under control got out of hand, a situation that is never good to be in when France are the opponents.

The second-rower completed all 22 attempted tackles in the game, making him the first player with 20 or more in a Six Nations match this year with a 100 per cent success rate. He so nearly had the perfect outcome, too.

"We have been privileged to get on with the tournament and get a triple crown, but there was obviously more at stake today," he added.

They still may be crowned winners yet, with France – who scored four tries against Wales for the first time in the Six Nations – needing another bonus-point triumph in their rearranged game against Scotland to have a chance of leapfrogging into top spot.

Wales will watch on with great interest but, whatever the outcome at Murrayfield, they have come a long way in the campaign, one that followed on from a tough 2020 which included a six-Test losing streak, leaving coach Wayne Pivac under pressure.

Still, that will be little comfort in the immediate aftermath. A Grand Slam was seemingly theirs, only for Dulin to touch down and hand the Welsh with a result that will be tough to stomach.

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    Liverpool face Rangers in a battle of Britain and Barcelona will attempt to apply more pressure on Inter boss Simone Inzaghi with a Champions League victory on Tuesday.

    An army of Gers fans will travel south of the border to descend on Merseyside for a Group A clash that will give them another opportunity to secure a first point, with the Reds in second spot behind Napoli.

    Barca moved top of La Liga last weekend and Xavi's side will start their third Group C game level on points with out-of-sorts Inter after losing 2-0 to leaders Bayern Munich last month.

    Bayern will be expected to maintain their 100 per cent record at the expense of Viktoria Plzen, and Serie A table-toppers Napoli travel to Ajax looking to continue their brilliant start to the season.

    Ahead of another mouthwatering set of matches, Stats Perform trawls through the Opta data to highlight the most noteworthy facts for each contest.

    Liverpool v Rangers

    This will be the first European meeting between Liverpool and the Glasgow giants in a European competition.

    The Gers have only won one of their seven away games in England, that being a 2-1 Champions League victory at Leeds United in November 1992 courtesy of goals from Mark Hateley and Ally McCoist. They have suffered six defeats and drawn twice.

    Liverpool's last meeting with Scottish opponents in the European Cup was back in the 1980-81 campaign, winning 5-0 on aggregate against Alex Ferguson's Aberdeen (1-0 away, 4-0 home). The Reds went on to win the competition that year.

    Jurgen Klopp's side have won 13 of their past 15 home Champions League group stage matches (D1 L1), scoring 36 goals in process. Their solitary defeat was against Atalanta in November 2020

    Rangers have failed to score in their two group games so far. Indeed, only Plzen (2) and Sevilla (3) have had fewer shots on target than the Scottish club (4) in this season's first two matchdays.

    Inter v Barcelona

    Inter have won just two of their 14 European matches against Barcelona (D4 L8), a 2-1 victory in the Inter-Cities Fairs Cup in January 1970 and 3-1 Champions League triumph in April 2010.

    Barca's two away wins against the Nerazzurri came 60 years apart, winning 4-2 in the Fairs Cup in September 1959 and 2-1 in the Champions League in December 2019.

    Inter have lost six UEFA Champions League matches against the Catalan giants, their most against a single opponent. Barca have only beaten Celtic (8) more times in the competition.

    Barca have lost three of their past four away Champions League group stage matches (W1), as many as in their previous 25 matches on their travels in the competition (W15 D7). Xavi is only the second manager to lose his first two away Champions League matches in charge of Barcelona, along with Louis van Gaal in 1997.

    Inter have lost their past two Champions League games at San Siro (0-2 v Liverpool and Bayern). Only once previously have they suffered three consecutive home defeats in the European Cup/UEFA Champions League (a run of three between February-September 2011).

    Bayern Munich v Viktoria Plzen

    Bayern have won all four of their European matches against Plzen, beating them twice in the 1971-72 Cup Winners' Cup and the Champions League in 2013-14.

    Plzen's two away European matches against Bayern have seen them concede at least five goals on each occasion, losing 6-1 in September 1971 in the Cup Winners' Cup and 5-0 in the Champions League nine years ago.

    Bayern are out to record three wins at the start of a Champions League campaign for a fourth consecutive season. In their opening three games in the previous three seasons and their two games this year, they have won all 11 matches by an aggregate score of 41-7.

    Plzen have conceded seven goals in their two Champions League games this season and only kept one clean sheet in their 20 matches in the competition.

    Leroy Sane has been directly involved in 14 goals in his past 11 Champions League starts for Bayern (8 goals, 6 assists). The winger could become only the second player to score in Bayern's first three Champions League games in a season, with Robert Lewandowski (in 2019-20 and 2021-22) being the other.

    Ajax v Napoli

    Napoli have never won away from home in the Netherlands (D2 L3) in any European competition.

    Ajax have failed to win any of their past 11 home European matches against Italian opposition (D6 L5) since winning 2-1 against Roma in this competition in December 2002.

    Napoli will be looking to win their first three Champions League group stage games for the first time. They are unbeaten in eight matches in the group stage of the competition (W5 D3).

    Ajax have won their past four home games in the group stage of the Champions League, scoring four goals in each of the previous three (4-0 v Borussia Dortmund, 4-2 v Sporting CP and 4-0 v Rangers).

    Napoli are the top scoring side in the Champions League this season with seven goals. Luciano Spalletti's side have had more shots (43) and shots on target (19) than any other team.

    Other fixtures:

    Marseille v Sporting CP

    6 - Marseille have lost six of their eight European Cup/Champions League matches against Portuguese opponents (W1 D1).

    16 - Marseille have lost 16 of their past 17 Champions League matches (W1), failing to score in 11 matches in this run, including both games this season.

    Porto v Bayer Leverkusen

    7 - Porto have won seven of their eight home Champions League games against German opposition (D1), winning five in a row.

    2 - Leverkusen have only won two of their past 13 away matches in the Champions League (D5 L6), with three of the previous four ending in defeats without scoring.

    Club Brugge v Atletico Madrid

    3 - Brugge are unbeaten in all three home meetings with Atleti in European competition (W2 D1).

    7 - Atleti have never won a European match against a Belgium club in seven attempts (five away, two neutral). They have played more major European games on Belgian soil without winning than in any other country.

    Eintracht Frankfurt v Tottenham

    4 - Tottenham have lost their past four Champions League matches against German opposition by an aggregate score of 14-3, losing twice to Bayern Munich (2-7 and 1-3) and twice to RB Leipzig (0-1 and 0-3).

    3 - Eintracht have won three consecutive European games against English teams (one versus Arsenal, two v West Ham), as many as in their first 14.

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    Maddison's continued absence from Gareth Southgate's Three Lions squad has been the source of some contention.

    The 25-year-old has earned only a single England cap, in November 2019, and appears to face an uphill battle to gain favour with Southgate before Qatar 2022 kicks off next month.

    Yet Maddison has started the Premier League season in outstanding form. After scoring two and assisting another in Leicester's 4-0 win over fellow strugglers Nottingham Forest, he has seven goal involvements in seven appearances.

    Going back to the start of the previous campaign, Southgate's captain Harry Kane is the only English player with more Premier League goals (24) or goal involvements (34) than Maddison (17 goals, 10 assists).

    "It's such a shame for the country and for James himself," manager Rodgers told Sky Sports. "You see his talent, and his performance level for the last 18 months I think everybody is clear on.

    "I think it's only Harry Kane who has created and scored more goals than him, so to not even be in the squad...

    "Even if he's not going to start, to have a player of that quality and not only in that, in international football, to have the personality to take the ball, be creative, take the ball and change the game, James is all of that. He's an absolutely brilliant player.

    "I really hope over these next few months he can continue the form he's shown for 18 months and somehow get into the team, because if you're wanting creativity, you're wanting personality – he's improved his defensive side of his game, and he can play in a couple of positions.

    "For me, he's an absolutely outstanding player, and he's up there.

    "I love Phil Foden, Mason Mount, those boys who play there – Jack Grealish is different, Jack plays from the side – but Madders can play in a number of positions to a high level, and he showed that tonight."

    Maddison, who said suggestions he would not be a good character within the group if not starting were "insulting", added: "It's been a weird position for me.

    "We [Leicester] have been bottom of the league, and results have not been going our way, but I've almost been as confident as I've ever been in my career.

    "I don't remember over the last 12 months playing better than I have and feeling as well as I have.

    "It's obviously hard to answer this question [on his England hopes], because you want to say the right thing, you don't want to say the wrong thing, but that's an ambition of mine, a goal of mine.

    "I'm a football man, I watch all the games, I watch international football, and an opportunity at that level would be something I desire. I almost know I'd have an impact.

    "It's one I hope will come my way at some point."

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    The mantra of Victor Meldrew, the curmudgeonly lead character of British sitcom 'One Foot in The Grave' is one that has long since applied to the New York Jets.

    As such, it was difficult to envisage anything other than a painful ending to the Jets' Week 4 game with the Pittsburgh Steelers, which saw Zach Wilson – returning from a preseason knee injury that once looked as if it would end his 2022 campaign before it started – given three minutes and 35 seconds to drive his team down 65 yards for a game-winning touchdown. 

    The fact he succeeded in doing so and the manner in which he achieved that feat suggests head coach Robert Saleh may soon be able to start pulling out the receipts he so emphatically spoke of in the face of questions about criticism of his team following a meek season-opening 24-9 loss to the Baltimore Ravens.

    Wilson's raw numbers – a completion percentage of 50, 252 passing yards, one touchdown and two interceptions – along with a well-thrown percentage of 77.4 (below the average of 79 for the week) do not illustrate an overly impressive performance from a quarterback the franchise is hoping and praying will make the leap in his second year in the NFL.

    And in many ways, Wilson's display was a 'greatest hits' of everything that makes observers doubt his ability to make the grade at the highest level. He struggled under pressure, missed throws, attempted dangerous desperation heaves and, unsurprisingly, committed turnovers that on another day might have proved backbreaking.

    Yet Wilson never lost the confidence he exuded on the Jets' first touchdown drive, which saw him hit Elijah Moore on a perfectly timed deep comeback and go back to the same receiver on the deep dig before he then caught the ball for the score from Braxton Berrios on a trick play he celebrated with the 'gritty' dance.

    There was both grit and that same confidence on show as Wilson then led the Jets on successive touchdown drives to turn around a 20-10 deficit to secure the victory.

    He hit Corey Davis in stride on fourth down to keep the first of those drives alive before connecting with Davis again on the whip route for a five-yard touchdown after a succession of red-zone penalties threatened to stall the Jets' progress.

    Wilson was six for six passing on the final drive, producing another pinpoint downfield throw to Davis to help set up Breece Hall's two-yard touchdown run to stun a Steelers crowd ready to crown Kenny Pickett as their saviour after he replaced Mitchell Trubisky at half-time.

    Both Wilson and the Jets still have a long way to go, the downs that came with the critical ups in this game reiterated as much. Yet his showing also demonstrated how effective he could become with a talented supporting cast around him.

    The Jets' offensive line has been hit by injuries, but between Hall, Davis, Moore and standout rookie namesake Garrett Wilson, last year's second overall pick has the skill position players around him to make significant strides in 2022.

    Garrett Wilson (two receptions for 41 yards) was kept relatively quiet by his early-season standards, but Davis (five for 74 yards and a touchdown) and Moore (three for 53) shone when it mattered for the Jets, while Hall's 66-yard effort contained flashes of the upside on the ground that convinced the Jets to take him in the second round.

    A big-ticket signing in free agency last year, Davis is repaying the Jets' investment in him by registering a burn, which is when a receiver wins his matchup with a defender on a play where he is targeted, on 18 of his 24 targets. His burn rate of 75 per cent is the best among receivers with at least 20 targets. He also leads all wideouts in burn yards per target (17.16) and big-play rate (56.1 per cent).

    Garrett Wilson is averaging 3.7 burn yards per route, well above the average of 3.0, and all three of the Jets' top trio of wideouts have double-digit receptions for first downs. Davis has racked up 13, Garrett Wilson has 12 and Moore 10. Hall, meanwhile, is averaging 4.7 yards per attempt and has put up 3.24 yards before contact per rush (the average for backs with at least 10 attempts is 2.51), showing burst that was doubted by some draftniks prior to his selection by the Jets.

    On the other side of the ball, however, there are still doubts about a defense that has allowed 12 offensive touchdowns, tied for the third-most in the NFL, even after a performance in which they picked off Trubisky once and Pickett three times.

    While the Steelers were missing star edge rusher T.J. Watt and dealing with sub-par play at quarterback, a win on the road in Pittsburgh is one that should breed confidence in the ecosystem and in Wilson.

    Games against the Miami Dolphins, Green Bay Packers and Denver Broncos present a challenging immediate road ahead for Wilson but after his fourth-quarter heroics in Pittsburgh, there is room for confidence that this time, with this quarterback and this surrounding cast, things will finally get better for the Jets.

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