LONDON (AP) — Wales set up a title showdown with old rival England on the final weekend of the Six Nations by squeezing past Scotland 28-18 on Saturday, while France stemmed its flow of defeats by battling back for a 13-13 draw in Ireland.
The prize of a shot at the title awaited the winner at Murrayfield and it was the defending champions who emerged from a messy match with the hopes intact thanks to 23 points from the boot of Leigh Halfpenny.
The fullback converted Richard Hibbard's 22nd-minute try and also knocked over seven of 10 penalties to beat Scotland scrumhalf Greig Laidlaw (18 points) in the battle of the kickers. There were 19 penalty attempts at goal — a world record in tests.
Frederic Michalak converted a late try by Louis Picamoles as France avoided a fourth straight loss and denied Ireland center Brian O'Driscoll a win on perhaps his last international match in Dublin. England hosts Italy on Sunday in the final match of the fourth round and is level on six points with Wales, with a superior points difference of seven. A big win for the leaders could deflate Welsh hopes but even being in this position is an unexpected boost for the holders.
After an opening loss at home to Ireland, the Welsh were on their knees and staring at a run of eight straight defeats. Now, with three straight wins, there is no stopping them. Scotland made life as difficult as possible in Edinburgh, staying within a point of Wales up to the 55th minute, but lacked the quality to really trouble the visitors.
"I was pleased with the victory," Wales coach Rob Howley said. "Murrayfield is not the easiest place to come. Many good Wales teams have come down the years and lost." If it wasn't for some poor place-kicking from Halfpenny early on, Wales could have pulled well clear by halftime but he missed three shots at goal in seven minutes.
However, he converted after Hibbard took a ball at full pace and plunged over the line, before kicking five penalties in a row after the break to punish Scottish indiscipline. Sam Warburton starred for Wales on his return to the side after injury, although he is unlikely to reclaim the armband from Ryan Jones after this win.
France was meant to be challenging for the title at this stage after being tipped as the pre-tournament favorite, yet it has fallen to the point where a draw is something to celebrate. Picamoles, the standout performer in a compelling if error-strewn match, took a quick tap from a penalty with six minutes to go and barged over, with Michalak's pressure conversion sealing France's comeback from a 13-3 halftime deficit.
It shows there is still some pride and determination in the France team — even if the quality is still lacking. In truth, there was never going to be much quality on show in driving rain and lashing wind but Ireland adapted well to the conditions, scoring first through Jamie Heaslip's try before Paddy Jackson kicked eight points through a conversion and two penalties.
Michalak's foibles with the boot returned — he missed two of his three shots at goal — and he was replaced as kicker by Morgan Parra, who trimmed the lead to seven points. However, it is to Michalak's credit that he knocked over the equalizing conversion from near the touchline, knowing a miss would have kept France on course for a first tournament whitewash since 1957.
"I don't know if it was the prettiest game to watch," Heaslip said. "I guess the score reflected the game — they came back in that last 20." O'Driscoll, one of Ireland's greatest ever players and its record tryscorer, defied a late injury to last the whole game in what could be his last appearance in the green jersey at home. The Irish play Italy away next weekend, while France hosts Scotland.
All eyes, however, will be the title decider at Millennium Stadium.