GRAND Slams are desperately hard-won. We all know it, and Wales know it more acutely than ever. After eight Six Nations victories on the trot, and on the cusp of a record ninth, Warren Gatland and his players came badly unstuck in Paris on Friday night. Demolished up front in the second half, and faced by a rejuvenated French side, Wales didn't deserve to win.
They came close with a final onslaught that almost pulled a pulsating contest out of the fire, but not only were they outscored by two tries to one, they were outplayed in the end by a home team which simply performed with the greater desire.
If at one point, when Wales led 13-3, it seemed that France would finish their championship season scrapping for the leftovers with Italy but Marc Lievremont's patchwork team suddenly began to get things right. Unyielding in defence, and hugely physical at the breakdown, they eventually dominated Wales to put themselves right back in the championship race with an emotional 21-16 success.
At Croke Park, the French had shown flashes of their counter-attacking brilliance, yet they somehow lacked the hard, mean edge of old. This time, their forwards, inspired by Imanol Harinordoquy, as well as their midfield, were more direct and more aggressive.
Hit by injuries, and sidetracked by an energy-sapping build-up which saw most of his players on Top 14 duty last weekend, Lievremont definitely pulled a rabbit out of the hat this time. With Lionel Beauxis and David Skrela unavailable due to injury, he started with Benoit Baby at out-half, and then had to replace him with Francois Trinh-Duc coming up to the interval.
Lievremont also had to rely on a woefully inexperienced placekicker in 20-year-old scrum half, Morgan Parra – who missed three out of seven – and in truth, if Beauxis had been fit, France would almost certainly have won by double-figures.
With Harinordoquy getting plenty of abrasive support form Thierry Dusautoir and Fulgence Ouedraogo, there were also important contributions from Yannick Jauzion and the powerful young centre, Matthieu Bastareaud. If the midfield struggled initially to contain Tom Shanklin, and if Lee Byrne was a constant threat, France managed to slam the door on Shane Williams as Wales were forced to chase the game in the final quarter.
"I'm extremely proud of the team. We proved we are hard-working and our fight was exceptional," said Lievremont. "The victory went against all logic given our complicated preparation with just five days training. But the players proved they are capable of playing at this level of intensity. Sometimes we are affected by journalists saying we can only play wide but we showed we can play down the middle as well."
France were in trouble when a combination of Stephen Jones' inch-perfect pass and Byrne's exquisite timing saw the full-back scorch through for the game's opening try, but they were level at half time when Dusautoir surged over from close range.
Cedric Heymans' try after 52 minutes, as the Wales' defence found itself stretched to the limit, was no more than France deserved, and although Parra's inconsistent place-kicking meant that there was never much between the teams, the winners had clearly taken control.
A resigned Warren Gatland accepted afterwards that Wales had made too many mistakes. "They deserved the victory. We had a chance to sneak it, but I think at 13-3 up we should have been a bit more clinical. We wasted a chance for a try, we gave away a penalty for 13-6 and made four mistakes in a row to concede the try [to Dusautoir]. That was where the game was lost. We have no excuses, we weren't good enough. I was pretty happy with how it started, but you have to give credit to France. Some of their collision stuff was good, and they played a simple, very direct game. They deserved to win."
Meanwhile, man-of-the-match Harinordoquy agreed that the players showed more desire than in the games against Ireland and Scotland. "We won thanks to the defence and the spirit of the team. We showed another face. There was a lot of pressure because of the criticism after two not very good matches."
Although Wales remain in the hunt to retain their title with a visit to Rome on Saturday week before the finale in Cardiff against Ireland, they not alone saw the threat of their main ball-carrier behind the scrum, Jamie Roberts, snuffed out for the second game in a row, but the demise of their forwards will surely be more of a worry to Gatland.
After a fast start, the likes of Ryan Jones, Andy Powell (below) and Alan Wyn Jones were off the pace in the second half. The smart money had been on that trio, plus Martyn Williams and Gethin Jenkins, to be strong contenders for Lions selection, but following Friday's setback, the odds might have to be revised.
"We have to get over this quickly," said the captain, Jones. "It's not going to be pretty viewing, and it'll be tough for some individuals, me included, but that's test match rugby. There is no hiding place. We've still got a Triple Crown and a championship to play for. We were beaten by a better team, but we'll come back stronger from this."
Shanklin certainly impressed for a time with his direct running, while only a magnificent Dusautoir tackle prevented Byrne from cutting through for a second try in the second half, but elsewhere, there was precious little consolation for Wales.
"France were very, very good, and put us under a lot of pressure, and we conceded a lot of penalties because of that," explained Stephen Jones who landed two penalties and a conversion before being replaced by James Hook.
While France undoubtedly performed with more fire than they during the win over Scotland, it's hard to agree with Jones's assessment. In the end, Wales failed to deliver against a side which was badly hit by injuries and whose preparation was far from ideal. Could it be that last season's champions went into the game believing their own press?
France are nothing special, but they will go to Twickenham, and then on to a possible points-fest against Italy feeling much better about themselves. The first Six Nations game to be staged on a Friday will probably turn out to the turning point of their season.