France 28 Wales 9
Wales failed miserably with mission improbable at the Stade de France tonight as England were crowned 2011 RBS 6 Nations champions.
Wales needed a 27-point winning margin to deny England their first Six Nations title since 2003, but a low-key tournament ended on a suitably muted note.
Wales had won on three previous occasions at the home of French rugby, and they fancied their chances given that Les Bleus lost to Six Nations wooden spoonists Italy last Saturday.
But the visitors, whose defence coach Shaun Edwards missed the Paris trip due to what are understood to be disciplinary reasons, could not build on early promise and suffered their biggest Six Nations defeat since being beaten 31-5 by Ireland five years ago.
Lock Lionel Nallet scored two tries for the home side, while wing Vincent Clerc also touched down and scrum-half Morgan Parra booted 13 points as France claimed the runners-up spot on points difference, with Ireland finishing third and Wales fourth.
Fly-half James Hook kicked all Wales’ points, but he was sin-binned in the second period and France immediately prospered when Clerc touched down during his absence.
Hook’s caution was a fourth yellow card of the competition for Wales, continuing a trend in recent seasons when they have regularly pressed the self-destruct button.
It was a bitterly disappointing end to Wales’ Test campaign, but they could have no complaints as for the 10th time in 12 Six Nations seasons they finished outside the top three.
France did not hit top gear, yet they still had more than enough in attack to lift some of the gloom surrounding their under-fire coach Marc Lievremont.
They comfortably kept Wales at bay, despite a lively start by the visitors, and had it not been for some frantic Welsh defence their losing margin might have been even worse.
Wales coach Warren Gatland made two enforced changes from the team that toppled Ireland in controversial fashion last weekend, handing a Six Nations debut to wing George North and recalling fit-again prop Adam Jones for his 69th cap.
North replaced knee injury victim Shane Williams, while Jones – who had only played 20 minutes’ rugby since mid-January because of an elbow problem – took over from Craig Mitchell (dislocated shoulder).
Lievremont, having read the riot act to his players after the Italy loss seven days ago, ditched the likes of Sebastien Chabal, Yannick Jauzion, Sylvain Marconnet and Aurelien Rougerie.
But there was still huge expectancy surrounding a French side striving to avoid a third Six Nations defeat in one season for the first time in 10 years.
Hook and Parra exchanged early penalties but Wales dominated territory and possession during a high-tempo opening quarter that just lacked the finishing touch.
Wales remained on the front foot despite losing influential flanker Sam Warburton with an injury that meant an early opportunity for experienced Ospreys back-row forward Jonathan Thomas.
Parra put France ahead with an angled penalty, yet Wales came closest to the game’s opening try when wing Leigh Halfpenny looked to have breached the French defence.
Slick passing by the Wales backs gave Halfpenny an outside angle, but French fly-half Francois Trinh-Duc managed an ankle-tap tackle that sent Halfpenny sprawling.
France showed flashes of invention, albeit from inside their own half, yet Wales were not stretched defensively until just before the interval.
The visitors made a hash of a steepling kick just outside their own 22, and Nallet powered over on a 20-metre charge to hand France an 11-3 half-time advantage.
Hook cut the gap through an early second-half penalty, only for his blunder to then gift France and Nallet a second try.
Hook’s attempted clearance was charged down by Nallet’s second-row partner Julien Pierre, and his pass enabled the Racing Metro forward to power over.
Parra added the extras, then kicked a penalty to cancel out Hook’s third successful strike as France looked under no obvious pressure entering the final quarter 21-9 ahead.
And their cause was assisted by Hook’s sin-binning, with France making Wales pay almost immediately when Trinh-Duc chipped over their defence and Clerc finished off a clinical move.
Parra’s conversion completed the scoring, leaving Wales with plenty of work to do as they head into the summer and pre-World Cup games against the Barbarians, England (twice) and Argentina.