AFP - France left themselves with a 'home run' to a Six Nations Grand Slam after the tournament leaders beat Wales 26-20 at the Millennium Stadium here on Friday.
Victory appeared all but assured at half-time with France 20-0 in front following two interception tries.
But Wales, just as they did in their dramatic come-from-behind 31-24 win over Scotland last time out, rallied and cut France's lead to 20-13 heading into the final quarter under the Millennium's closed retractable roof.
However, against a team of France's all-round quality they left themselves with just too much of a mountain to climb on this occasion.
Replacement fly-half Frederic Michalak scored a penalty nine minutes from time that, importantly, put France two scores in front.
And with just two minutes left, scrum-half Morgan Parra kicked his third penalty after Wales were caught offside in front of their posts.
There was still time for wing Shane Williams, on his 33rd birthday, to become the first Wales player to score 50 tries after a typical jinking run.
Fly-half Stephen Jones converted and Wales, who had been 14-24 behind against Scotland with minutes remaining, had hopes of another great escape.
But France, unlike Scotland, booted the ensuing kick-off 'dead' through Michalak and with that South African referee Jonathan Kaplan blew for full-time.
France, who have now won three games in a row for the first time under coach Marc Lievremont, can look forward to wrapping up the Championship with matches in Paris against Italy and England on March 13 and 20 respectively.
It was from a home attack that France opened the scoring in the seventh minute when left wing Alexis Palisson intercepted Wales centre James Hook's pass and sprinted in from 40 metres for a try under the posts.
Parra added the easy conversion and France were 7-0 ahead.
France's strong pack, as they've done to other teams in this tournament, shoved Wales backwards at the scrum while their solid defence was exemplified when powerful centre Mathieu Bastareaud forced Stephen Jones to knock-on in the tackle.
Parra, who sliced an 11th-minute drop-goal attempt, made no mistake in the 19th minute when, after Wales flanker Martyn Williams infringed by going in off his feet after Bastareaud had been tackled, he kicked a 40-metre penalty to extend France's lead to 10-0.
Another 40-metre Parra penalty then took France to 13-0 in the 26th minute.
And on the stroke of half-time, France went 20-0 ahead with their second interception try as Shane Williams gifted the visitors a present.
The left wing made a half-break but was well-tackled by Yannick Jauzion and then Williams tried to force a pass only to see it collected by France outside-half Francois Trinh-Duc, who ran in unopposed for a try that Parra converted.
Wales badly needed a score early in the second half but, after Hook had sliced open the French defence following a Shane Williams grubber kick, replacement lock Luke Charteris, on for Deiniol Jones, knocked on.
They did, though, manage the game's next two scores when Stephen Jones punished French offsides with a pair of penalties.
Wales's desperate need for points had the effect, as against Scotland, of making them play with much greater dynamism than they'd managed early on.
And they put the match back in the balance just after the hour mark.
Scrum-half Richie Rees's quickly taken tap penalty put France on their heels and Shane Williams's well-flighted cut-out pass was taken at full tilt by fellow wing Leigh Halfpenny, who crossed for a try in the left corner.
Stephen Jones converted and France, who had been cruising, were now a mere seven points in front and to make matters worse were also a man down after Parra was yellow carded for being deliberately offside.
Wales, who've now lost two and won one of their matches in this Six Nations, will look to bounce back away to defending champions Ireland, who play England at Twickenham on Saturday, on March 13.