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Wales will field an unchanged side against France in their final match of the 2017 Six Nations, it was announced Wednesday.
Interim head coach Rob Howley has retained the same starting line-up that beat Ireland 22-9 at home last week for Saturday’s match in Paris.
If Wales win — and England beat Ireland in Dublin on Saturday to secure a Grand Slam — it will mean that the Welsh are assured of a top-four position in the world rankings ahead of the 2019 World Cup pool draw in May.
Saturday will see Wales bidding for their sixth straight win over France in a match where hooker Ken Owens wins his 50th cap, with experienced Bath forwards Taulupe Faletau and Luke Charteris remaining on the bench.
Although Wales have already been beaten by England and Scotland this season, a win at the Stade de France could see them finish second behind already-crowned champions England if other results fall in their favour.
“I was delighted for the players about Friday’s result and performance, and they deserve the opportunity to build on that in our final RBS 6 Nations encounter,” said Howley after announcing his team.
The former Wales scrum-half, in charge while Wales head coach Warren Gartland is seconded to the British and Irish Lions for the combined side’s tour of New Zealand in June and July, and his team had faced criticism after the successive defeats by England and Scotland.
But Wales responded impressively by scoring three tries against Ireland, including two from powerhouse wing George North, while not conceding any at Cardiff’s Principality Stadium last Friday.
“The experience we showed and the intensity we brought to the match was hugely important, and that will be just as important as we face a good France team at home,” said Howley. “We put pressure on ourselves and turned that pressure into a result.”
He added: “For us, there are areas of the game we want to work on from Ireland, and we have an opportunity to do that on Saturday and finish the campaign with another quality performance.
“The players who took to the field at the Principality Stadium deserve the opportunity to start, and we were pleased with the impact from the bench, so will be looking for the same this weekend.”
Wales have not lost at the Stade de France since a 28-9 defeat in 2011.
They will face a France side who’ve also won two out of their four Six Nations matches so far this season, following victories over Scotland and Italy.
George North silenced his critics with a brace of tries that saw Wales run out 22-9 winners over Ireland in Cardiff on Friday to end the visitors’ hopes of a tilt at the Six Nations title.
The result means England will be crowned Six Nations champions should they beat Scotland on Saturday.
North scored a try in each half and Jamie Roberts a late five-pointer, Leigh Halfpenny kicking two conversions and a penalty. Ireland, who had Jonny Sexton sin-binned, had just three penalties to show for their efforts through the Leinster fly-half (2) and Paddy Jackson.
“We knew we were one performance away from winning a game, they have been down to fine margins every week,” man-of-the-match and scrum-half Rhys Webb told BBC.
“We showed glimpses of what we can do and there is more to come from us. You don’t become a bad team overnight.”
Wales captain Alun Wyn Jones added: “We owed that to the Welsh people and to ourselves. We haven’t done ourselves justice in the last two games.”
Irish skipper Rory Best admitted that his team, who bounced back from an opening defeat by Scotland with wins over Italy and France, were “very disappointed”.
“We came here hoping and expecting to win and keep everything alive. Credit to Wales but we are frustrated with the errors we made.”
It was a brutal match, the ferocity of some of the early bone-jarring hits reverberating around a packed, expectant Principality Stadium in full song: Ireland made 81 tackles in the first half alone.
Recent encounters between the Celtic cousins have been closely-fought affairs, and this attritional ding-dong was no different, although the winning margin was Wales’ best since 1983.
Ireland dominated a frantic opening period, monopolising both possession and territory. The pressure eventually paid off after Webb was penalised for a high tackle, Sexton making no mistake with the long-range kick at the posts.
Wales, who opened their Six Nations campaign with victory over Italy before losing to England the Scots, came battering back, but the Irish defence held firm.
Breaks from South African-born flanker CJ Stander and winger Simon Zebo kept Wales pinned back, but the visitors suffered a blow when a groggy Sexton, who caught a Jonathan Davies knee to his head, was replaced by Paddy Jackson in the 19th minute.
No sooner had the replacement come on then Wales sprang from a line-out.
Ireland coach Joe Schmidt had predicted before the match that players can bounce back from a poor display with a much-improved one, and so it proved to be for North, heavily criticised in Wales’ capitulation to Scotland.
Webb broke into midfield and found Halfpenny with a long pass, the Toulon full-back fed North who stepped inside Keith Earls and rode Zebo’s tackle for a fine try.
Halfpenny missed the conversion and Jackson restored Ireland’s lead with a penalty.
Wales ended an entertaining half in the ascendancy, however, a Webb chip to the corner gathered by Liam Williams who fed inside only for Davies to be held up.
English referee Wayne Barnes had no choice but to yellow card Sexton for killing the ball on the line, Halfpenny making no mistake with the resulting penalty.
Wales made their numerical supremacy pay immediately into the second period, Halfpenny doing well to follow up a Webb chip and bundle the covering, obviously injured Connor Murray into touch.
Alun Wyn Jones rose to pluck the ball in the resulting line-out, the maul trundled forwards and Webb found North unmarked on his wing for a simple try, his 30th on the international stage. Halfpenny knocking over the extras.
The returned Sexton orchestrated an Irish fightback, Wales withstanding a remarkable 26-phase of attack before Dan Biggar was harshly penalised for a high tackle, Sexton pulling back three points.
Biggar saw a drop-goal go off the post as a raft of replacements came on in what was turning into a war of attrition.
And then Robbie Henshaw arguably cost Ireland a pushover try when he joined a driving maul illegally.
Sexton conjured up a couple of pinpoint cross-kicks that threatened the Welsh line late on, but the home side had the last word when Roberts barrelled over from close quarters, Halfpenny booting the conversion to leave coach Rob Howley and his coaching staff breathing a massive sigh of relief after two weeks of intense scrutiny over their selection policy.
Gareth Bale hopes three tough months on the sidelines will have their recompense by helping Real Madrid’s bid for La Liga and Champions League glory and Wales’ hopes of reaching the World Cup.
Bale made an instant impact on his first taste of action for 88 days after damaging ankle ligaments as he fired home Madrid’s second in a 2-0 win over Espanyol on Saturday just 13 minutes after coming off the bench.
And the Welshman hopes he can match his fantastic form from the final three months of last season after suffering from injury problems earlier in the campaign.
“Every cloud has a silver lining, hopefully I am a bit fresher than maybe some others,” said Bale.
“It can work in my advantage to be out for a little bit, but the important thing now is to get back to 100 percent and playing well and to help the team.”
Victory took Real four points clear of Barcelona at the top of La Liga with a game in hand.
However, Zinedine Zidane’s men face an intense final few months of the campaign with 18 La Liga games and their defence of the Champions League still to play for.
Bale’s return is also a timely boost for Wales boss Chris Coleman ahead of his side’s crunch World Cup qualifier away to the Republic of Ireland on March 24.
“I plan not to get injured any more,” added Bale.
“Hopefully now I can keep building my fitness up over the next few weeks…hopefully I can be fit for Real Madrid as soon as possible to play 90 minutes, and obviously for Wales as well.”
Bale was given a hero’s reception on his return by the Santiago Bernabeu crowd.
And he admitted getting on the scoresheet was just a bonus to the joy of being back among the action.
“I was happy just to be on the pitch. To get a goal is an extra bonus and thankful to help the team and see the game off,” he continued.
“There has been some tough moments, but we have an amazing medical team here. Jaime Benito (physio) has been incredible for me, my family have been amazing, my fiancee, my kids.
“It’s been a difficult time but when you get a reception like that it makes it all worth it.”
Madrid face tougher tests over the next week with trips to Valencia and Villarreal to come.
And Bale insisted he isn’t expecting to be rushed back into the starting line-up by Zidane.
“I’ve been out for three months so it will take a few weeks to get back to 100 percent, it’s just about managing my game time.
“It depends how I feel game-by-game. Today was 20 minutes. I will speak with the manager about Valencia and Villarreal.”
However, Zidane admitted Bale brings special qualities that others can’t offer.
“We only have one Gareth Bale,” said the Frenchman. “We are happy to see Gareth back with the team. He is a special player, he gives us something different from the rest.”
England coach Eddie Jones accepted his side had used up all their “get-out-of-jail cards” following a gripping 21-16 win away to Wales in the Six Nations.
The Grand Slam champions were 16-14 behind with just four minutes left when wing Elliot Daly, following a poor clearance kick by Wales centre Jonathan Davies, surged past Alex Cuthbert for a superb try in the corner.
As had been the case in their tournament-opening win over France the week before, England had come from behind to seal victory with a late try.
“We have used up all of our get-out-of-jail cards and against Italy (on February 26) we don’t want to be in that position again,” Jones said.
“I thought it was a great game of Test rugby,” added Jones after England moved to within two wins of world champions New Zealand’s all-time record of 18 successive Test victories by a leading rugby nation.
“A lot of credit goes to Wales, who were superb. They hit hard and hit often off the ball, which made it a fantastic Test match.”
The Australian, yet to lose a Test as England boss since his appointment following the team’s first-round exit on home soil at the 2015 World Cup, added: “We are a gritty team with characters in there that don’t know how to get beaten, and that was evident here.
“At stages I thought we were going to fade out of the game, but we hung in there making tackles.”
Jones, paying tribute to his hard-working locks, said: “Courtney Lawes is like a human ice-pack. He has ice all over him after that many tackles and carries. Joe Launchbury as well.”
Shortly before his blistering score, Daly had raced back to prevent Wales fly-half Dan Biggar scoring a stunning intercept try.
“The boy’s got gas and he’s got that X-factor about him and that’s what we like him,” Jones said. “I don’t necessarily think wing is his best position, but it suits us at the moment.
“You’ve got to be running over 10 metres per second to score that try, and he can do that.
“Elliot might get a run out for Manchester United with that kick out (after the Biggar interception). It was a pretty good tackle. He did really well for us.”
Wales led 13-8 at the break after Liam Williams crossed to cancel out an early try by England scrum-half Ben Youngs.
But the lead never got beyond five points and Wales coach Rob Howley was left to rue a lack of composure in the closing stages.
“The intensity and application of our players for 75 minutes was outstanding,” he said.
“We played with pace and accuracy, as did England,” the former Wales scrum-half added.
“England know how to win, and we lost, but it was a fantastic performance.
“In the final 10 minutes, we had to execute under pressure, and we didn’t. But that is Test match football.”
Wales suffered a setback when George North was ruled out an hour before kick-off after failing to overcome a leg injury sustained in their preceding 33-7 win away to Italy.
Howley, however, said he expected the powerhouse wing to be fit for Wales’s next match, against Scotland on February 25.
“It was pretty evident this (Saturday) morning that the haematoma hadn’t settled, which is pretty important,” Howley explained.
“We gave him every opportunity, and this morning it was fairly obvious that we would be putting him at risk if he started the game, so hopefully we made the right decision.
“He will be fit for Murrayfield selection.”
Wales will give George North and Dan Biggar as long as they can to prove their fitness for Saturday’s Six Nations clash against England in Cardiff.
Both powerhouse wing North and fly-half Biggar took part in Friday’s training session at the Principality Stadium after coach Rob Howley named the pair in his starting side announced Thursday.
North suffered a leg injury during Wales’s tournament-opening 33-7 win away to Italy on Sunday, while Biggar went off at half-time in Rome after suffering a blow to his ribs.
“They both took part in training today,” Wales assistant coach Robin McBryde told reporters at the Principality on Friday.
“We are the same as we were yesterday. We will give them both as much time as possible, leading up to the game.
“Everything we have asked him (North) to do, he has been able to do.
“Obviously, we have got contingency plans in place. We’ve got (wings) Steff Evans and Alex Cuthbert with the squad as well.
“Everybody has got their heads on psychologically,” insisted the former Wales hooker.
The 24-year-old North, already a veteran of 69 Tests, did some on-field stretching exercises as Cardiff wing Cuthbert and uncapped Scarlets flyer Evans trained as well.
If North is ruled out, the 44-times capped Cuthbert, whose 15 Test tries included a match double in Wales’s 30-3 Six Nations title-winning rout of England four years ago, is in line to take over.
Wales have until an hour before Saturday’s 1650 GMT kick-off to confirm their side.
McBryde was uncomfortable at being pressed on the exact state of North’s fitness and said: “I can’t go into 50/50s or 60/40s or whatever. All I can do is rely on what the medics are telling me.
“They (Biggar and North) have done everything asked of them up until now and it’s obviously a close call because we are leaving it late.”
If Cuthbert plays, it will be his first Six Nations appearance since he featured in Wales’ 25-21 defeat by Grand Slam champions England at Twickenham last year.
Should Biggar be sidelined, Ospreys colleague Sam Davies, who impressed off the bench in the second half at Rome’s Stadio Olimpico, would make his first Test start.
The 23-year, all of whose four caps have come as a replacement, showed his big-match temperament when he landed the last-second drop-goal that rescued a win for Wales at home to Japan in November.
McBryde, who played with Davies’ father Nigel, a former centre, for both Llanelli and Wales, said of Sam: “He’s not fazed by anything, there’s a freedom about him, there’s the ability to forget about what’s gone on before and just focus on the present.”
McBryde added: “He’s mature, he’s part of a ‘young leaders group’ we’ve got in the squad and he’s a very confident individual.
“I’ve been very impressed by what he offers off the field as well as on it.”
“He’s fitted in really well — nothing like his father!,” joked McBryde.
England are on a national record 15 successive Test wins following last week’s unconvincing 19-16 defeat of France at Twickenham.
While beating England is no longer the ‘be all and end all’ for Wales, the rivalry is still sharp enough.
“We are neighbours, aren’t we?,” said McBryde. “I have got two English brothers-in-law.
“It is that English-Welsh rivalry, and wanting to get the better of your neighbour, it’s as simple as that.”
England coach Eddie Jones has insisted on the Principality’s retractable roof remaining opening and there was a light-hearted moment on Friday when a phone went off and McBryde answered it by saying: “Eddie? Sorry mate, I am in the middle of a press conference.”
Asked about the roof decision, McBryde added: “He (Jones) has just rung me now to say he has changed his mind, apparently!
“It is going to be dry tomorrow, so it won’t have that much of an effect on the game.”
Bernard Foley said he and his Australian teammates were set on ignoring any criticism, instead focusing on ever-improving performances after demolishing Wales in their tour opener.
Fly-half Foley was magnificent in his chef d’orchestre role in the 32-8 victory on Saturday, thriving behind a dominant pack and quick service from scrum-half Nic Phipps to feed a wealth of willing, free-running backs outside him.
Three first-half tries and two more in the second period, including one from Foley, set up a comprehensive win in the first game of a six-match tour in which Australia could win their first Grand Slam of Home Nations teams since 1984.
“I think it’s something we put a lot of emphasis on is coming here and starting this tour well and this week preparation was immense,” said Foley.
“You can’t fault how the guys prepared for this game and I think what was real pleasing was it was our defence, it didn’t waver all game.
“When our attack wasn’t working in the second half we were still able to score two tries off the back of our defence and that’s probably one thing this team wants to pride ourselves on. It’s something we’ve taken a lot of positives out of.”
Michael Cheika’s Wallabies have come in for criticism after a string of poor results following their appearance in the World Cup final a year ago.
A June series whitewash by England and a record home defeat by New Zealand in the Rugby Championship put Cheika and the squad in the limelight for all the wrong reasons, but Foley insisted it was water off a duck’s back.
“For us, there is a lot of external noise and there has been this year and I think it’s something we’ve had to put up with but as a squad we’re taking no notice of that external noise,” said the playmaker who won the Super Rugby title in 2014 with the Waratahs.
“We’re just focused on our roles in this squad and be really tight as a group. The resilience this team has showed the character it’s showed and the Tests we’ve been out through this year is just setting the platform, hopefully, for future success.”
Foley has proved to be somewhat of a thorn in Wales’ side in recent times.
In 2013, he came off the bench in the final five minutes as Australia snatched a 30-26 victory and a year later hit three penalties, three conversions and a crucial drop-goal in the closing stages as the visitors won again.
Then during the World Cup pool game at Twickenham 13 months ago he struck five penalties to help his team to a 15-6 win over Wales to finish atop their group.
“I was happy. We came here with a plan and we were able to execute it. We were prepared for what the Welsh bring and then try to nullify their threats and then also look at opportunities for us in attack,” he said.
“The backs worked really hard off the back off the platform the forwards set. I think it was, especially that first half, probably set us up really well.”
Thoughts now, however, turn to Scotland, whom Australia play next weekend.
“he Scottish are a side that we’ve had some close encounters with in the past couple of years,” Foley said.
“You only have to look back at last year’s World Cup quarter-final. They’re a team that if you’re ill-disciplined and if you knock off at set piece, they’ll really hurt you.”
Foley reiterated Cheika’s stance that there had been no talk of the Grand Slam.
“Not at all! That’s where you fall over, if you start looking ahead, that’s where we’ll stumble or fall over,” he said.
Gareth Bale scored his 25th goal for Wales but Georgia fought back strongly to earn a deserved 1-1 draw in a World Cup Group D qualifier in Cardiff.
It left Wales, surprise semi-finalists at Euro 2016, with five points from three games. They lost the group leadership and dropped to third place when Serbia and Ireland both won later on Sunday.
Georgia, in fifth place, took their first point, following narrow defeats by Austria and Ireland.
Wales, who have only ever qualified for the finals once, in 1958, took the lead in the 10th minute when Real Madrid’s Bale leapt above his markers to head in Joe Ledley’s corner.
He is now only three goals behind Ian Rush’s national record of 28 goals.
The home team paid for a lack of urgency, however, after 57 minutes when Tornike Okriashvili headed an equaliser.
Georgia, dangerous on the counter-attack, could have gone on to win but Levan Mchedlidze missed when clean through and Valeri Qazaishvili hit the bar.
“It was the dream start but then we got too comfortable,” said Wales manager Chris Coleman.
“We could have lost it in the second half.”
Next month Wales are at home again, to Serbia, while Georgia play Moldova.
Sam Warburton has been confirmed as Wales captain for their November internationals against Australia, Argentina, Japan and South Africa, interim head coach Robert Howley said on Friday.
Cardiff Blues flanker Warburton, who has captained Wales on 50 occasions, also led the British and Irish Lions on their 2013 tour of Australia and has also been tipped to skipper the combined side in New Zealand next year.
As was the case in 2013, Warren Gatland is taking a sabbatical from his duties as Wales coach in order to guide the Lions.
“Sam Warburton is a great captain,” said Howley, who is again in charge of Wales in Gatland’s absence with the Lions.
“He captained the Lions, he will continue to captain Wales. I have spoken to Sam already, and he will captain us for the autumn series and into the Six Nations.
“He has, of course, done it (led the Lions) once, and I am sure he is in other people’s thoughts to captain again, but the challenge for all players will be the autumn series and the Six Nations.”
England captain Dylan Hartley is also in contention to skipper the Lions, particularly given the hooker led the team to a Six Nations Grand Slam and a 3-0 Test series win in Australia during a run of nine straight victories under coach Eddie Jones.
And former Wales and Lions scrum-half Howley accepted that, under former Australia and Japan coach Jones, England had become the team to beat in Europe.
“It’s a challenge for ourselves, Scotland, Ireland, France and Italy,” Howley said. “Eddie Jones has come in and they have played nine, won nine.
“As Eddie said, he mentioned in a quote that England should win (or challenge for) the (Six Nations) championship every year, so it’s for all of us to do something about it and make sure we challenge that area.
“It was great to see their three Tests over in Australia. They’ve got their house in order under Eddie, and it is something we look forward to.
“It’s at the Principality Stadium (Wales’ Six Nations clash against England in Cardiff on February 11), and it’s a date in the calendar.”
Howley, who has been a member of Gatland’s staff since 2008, will have full responsibility for Wales this term.
His previous stint in charge of Wales in 2012/13 saw the side lose five straight matches, including all four autumn Tests, before recovering to win the Six Nations.
Gatland is set to stand down as Wales head coach after the 2019 World Cup in Japan but Howley added: “I don’t see it as an audition.
“Autumn 2012 was a huge learning experience for me as a head coach,” he explained. “Because Warren came back for the Australia and New Zealand games, that period was difficult with messages going back and fore between us. There was a lot of energy wasted, a lot of communication.
“We need to become better as a team, and if we can become better, we will be a difficult team to beat over the next 10 months.”
Gareth Bale scored two goals and created another as Euro 2016 sensations Wales crushed Moldova 4-0 in their opening 2018 World Cup qualifier in Cardiff on Monday.
The Real Madrid forward teed up Sam Vokes for a 38th-minute opener and then scored his 23rd and 24th international goals after Joe Allen had registered his first.
Chris Coleman’s Wales reached the semi-finals at Euro 2016 before losing to eventual champions Portugal and are seeking to qualify for their first World Cup since 1958.
“We had to get off to a good start in the first game,” said Wales manager Coleman.
“It was going to be tough and we had to be patient and disciplined, and we were.
“We had a good level of professionalism and the supporters were great. The players got the ball and could have scored more.”
Victory at the Cardiff City Stadium made Wales the early pace-setters in UEFA qualifying Group D, which also features Austria, Serbia, the Republic of Ireland and Georgia.
Wales tackle Austria in Vienna in their next game on October 6.
Bale, 27, is now the second-highest scorer in Wales history, four goals behind former Liverpool striker Ian Rush.
“We know these games are very difficult,” Bale told Sky Sports.
“The teams can be difficult to break down, but we’re learning to cope with that sort of play.
“We enjoyed the past, but it’s history now and it’s time to make some more.”
Arsenal midfielder Aaron Ramsey missed Wales’s Euro semi-final defeat by Portugal through suspension and he was absent again against Moldova, this time due to a hamstring injury.
Coleman made only two changes to the team that had lined up in Lyon, with Ben Davies — suspended that evening — and Vokes replacing James Collins and Hal Robson-Kanu.
Ranked 165th in the world and having never reached a major tournament, Igor Dobrovolski’s Moldova accepted the role of would-be party poopers with relish.
The visitors packed men behind the ball in a 5-4-1 formation and exploited Israeli referee Liran Liany’s leniency by breaking up Wales’s rhythm with cynical fouls.
But a flash of Bale’s left boot yielded the breakthrough, the Real Madrid star whipping a glorious cross into the box from the right that Vokes steered past goalkeeper Ilie Cebanu with his head.
It was 2-0 before half-time as Stoke City new boy Allen broke his international duck in the 44th minute.
After shovelling a shot from Bale around his right-hand post, Cebanu flapped at Joe Ledley’s corner and Allen clipped the loose ball through a thicket of players and into the net.
Bale added a third early in the second half, seizing upon a calamitous back-pass by Ion Jardan and racing through to loft a shot over Cebanu.
Robson-Kanu, scorer of the goal that inspired Wales’s Euro quarter-final victory over Belgium, came on as a late substitute for Vokes to make his first appearance of the season.
After Cebanu had thwarted Robson-Kanu, Bale made it 4-0 from the penalty spot in stoppage time after he had been bundled over inside the box.
“If Wales had been so much better, I’d congratulate them,” said Moldova coach Dobrovolski.
“But they scored four times because of our mistakes. In games like this, you can’t make such childish mistakes.”
Gareth Bale takes his first step on the road to World Cup qualification with Wales against Moldova on Monday and manager Chris Coleman believes he is still getting better.
Bale, 27, scored three times as Wales created a sensation by reaching the semi-finals at Euro 2016, matching the best performance by a British team in an overseas tournament.
The challenge now facing him is to build on that momentum by firing Wales to the 2018 World Cup in Russia and Coleman says the Real Madrid flier is hungry to make more history.
“Gareth scored inside 75 seconds of Real’s first game of the season (against Real Sociedad), but I never get surprised by him,” Coleman said ahead of the Group D opener at Cardiff City Stadium.
“I know he’s capable of almost anything and I think Madrid are very excited about the future with Balo.
“They recognise that they’ve got someone who’s going to be there for a while and someone who is capable of winning everything.
“He’s getting better and better still. Along with that incredible ability, he’s got that first-class mentality as well.
“It’s a winning formula for Real Madrid and for Wales, and I think he will have another good season.”
Wales were among the fourth seeds in qualifying for Euro 2016, but their exploits in France catapulted them into Pot One for the World Cup qualifying draw.
In an evenly balanced group, they are likely to face strong challenges for the one automatic qualifying berth from Austria, Serbia and the Republic of Ireland. Georgia complete the pool.
While Bale is fit and firing, Wales will be without Aaron Ramsey against Moldova — as they were when they lost to eventual champions Portugal in the Euro semi-finals.
The Arsenal midfielder has a hamstring injury.
Attacking midfielder Jonathan Williams, who recently joined Ipswich Town on loan fromCrystal Palace, is also out.
Goalkeeper Wayne Hennessey is expected to start despite missing Palace’s 1-1 draw with Bournemouth last weekend due to a leg problem.
Prior to the Euros, Wales had not competed at a major tournament finals since the 1958 World Cup and their exploits electrified the nation.
Cardiff City Stadium will be packed to the rafters for the team’s return to action, but Coleman has warned that his side’s achievements in France will count for nothing in the new campaign.
“When I got home, for the two weeks after it I think my wife was expecting me to be a certain way, and I was not,” said Coleman, whose side are unbeaten in six competitive home games.
“I was on a bit of a downer. The situation is so exciting. It is exhausting, but you have all that emotion.
“But when it finishes, you don’t get weaned off it. It is over and you are back into reality as fathers and husbands.
“It was really hard and I know a lot of the lads (found it hard), too. You miss that buzz.
“You feel like you need a rest when it is going on, but once it finishes, you pine for it.
“It was so special, but it is gone, that moment is finished. We have to create something new.”
An independent nation since 1991, Moldova have never qualified for a major championship and have only won one of their last 21 games.
They finished rock bottom of their Euro 2016 qualifying group after losing eight and drawing two of their 10 matches.
The teams have only played each other twice, in qualifying for Euro 96, when they won one game apiece.
Late former Wales manager Gary Speed, Coleman’s predecessor, scored the only goal when the teams met in Cardiff, with Coleman also playing.
Cristiano Ronaldo scored one goal and inadvertently set up the other as Portugal ground out a 2-0 win over Wales on Wednesday to march into the Euro 2016 final.
The Portuguese superstar, who has had to soak up a lot of criticism for a lacklustre tournament by his high standards, majestically powered in a 50th-minute header to put his side in front.
The goal, his third in the tournament, equalled Michel Platini’s record of nine in European Championship finals.
Ronaldo also saw his shot turned in by Nani for a second goal in the 53rd minute, ending Wales’ remarkable run at their first major finals since 1958.
Portugal, who had not won a single game in the tournament over 90 minutes, next meet hosts France or Germany who play their semi-final on Thursday.
“I hope that after the final we will be smiling and that it will be tears of joy in the end,” said Ronaldo who wept after his team lost to surprise packages Greece in the 2004 final.
“I have always said my dream was to win a trophy with Portugal. We are closer to doing it and I believe we will win,” he told reporters after coming out on top in his battle with Real Madrid team mate Gareth Bale.
Wales kept their opponents quiet in the first half but could not recover the two-goal deficit, ending a scintillating run that has captivated millions back home and turned their players into heroes.
The Welsh, with midfielder Aaron Ramsey suspended and replaced by Leicester City’s Premier League winner Andy King, had an early spell of possession but a tight Portugal defence kept them at bay.
Portugal, bidding to reach their first Euro final since losing on home soil 12 years ago, had their first chance after a quarter of an hour following a low drive by Joao Mario.
Wales responded as Joe Ledley found Bale with a low corner and the forward fired over the bar.
The Welsh, playing their first major tournament semi-final, did not suffer from stage fright with their back line, supported by midfielders Ledley and Joe Allen, disciplined and compact.
In a cagey first half Portugal struggled to find Ronaldo, opting for long crosses into the box that were easy pickings for central defender James Collins.
Portugal injected some urgency after the break, pressing high up the field.
It paid off instantly with a corner in the 50th minute that Raphael Guerreiro floated in towards the far post where Ronaldo climbed high above two defenders to score.
Portugal doubled the lead when Nani slid in to connect with Ronaldo’s mishit shot, netting his own third goal of Euro 2016.
Wales were lucky not to concede more goals late in the game as Portugal, now unbeaten in 13 competitive matches, continued to dream of a maiden top-notch trophy.
“We are massively disappointed obviously but we have given everything on and off the pitch,” said Wales talisman Bale. “We tried our hardest to get back in the game, they shut up shop well but we have no regrets.
“We are very proud. We will pick ourselves up. Nobody expected us to get this far but we did.”
It will be virgin territory for Wales when they face Portugal in the Euro 2016 semi-finals yet their opponents could be forgiven a sense of deja vu as they step on to the pitch in Lyon on Wednesday.
This will be Portugal’s fourth semi-final in the last five editions of the competition stretching back to 2000, but for all their success in reaching the latter stages of the tournament, there has been little glory along the way.
Only once have they overcome the last-four hurdle and then they were beaten in the final by Greece as hosts at Euro 2004.
If you include their defeat in the semi-finals of the 2006 World Cup and a loss at the Euros in 1984, they are becoming all too familiar with the pitfalls of this stage of major tournaments.
Portugal’s conquerors in their recent last-four clashes have included football powerhouses France, at Euro 2000 and the World Cup in 2006, and Spain at Euro 2012.
Should they lose to Wales, playing their first major tournament in 58 years and their first ever semi-final, it would be a devastating blow.
Yet Wales are arguably the form team coming into the match.
Chris Coleman’s side have revelled in their underdog status to win their group, which also included England, Russia and Slovakia, ease out British rivals Northern Ireland in the last 16 and sweep past heavy favourites Belgium in the quarters.
Portugal are yet to win a match at the tournament inside 90 minutes, having drawn all three group games, beaten Croatia in extra time and squeezed past Poland on penalties.
Things are yet to click for Portugal, and by extension for captain Cristiano Ronaldo, who has at times looked exasperated by his team mates’ attacking shortcomings.
Yet Portugal are unbeaten in 12 competitive internationals since Fernando Santos took over as coach at the start of the Euro 2016 qualifying campaign.
With Ronaldo’s Real Madrid team mate Pepe marshalling an increasingly assured defence, they will be tough to break down.
Especially for a Wales side deprived of one of their most talented creative influences in midfielder Aaron Ramsey, who will be suspended after picking up a booking in the win over Belgium.
While Gareth Bale has been Wales’s attacking talisman, scoring three times to lift them out of their group, Ramsey has been arguably their most influential player, scoring one and producing four assists in the run to the last four.
The match is likely to be billed as a contest between the two most expensive players in the world — Ronaldo, who will play a record third European Championship semi-final, and his Real Madrid team mate Bale.
Perhaps ominously for Wales, Ronaldo has netted twice in each of his last two games in Lyon for club and country.
Wales are happy to cast themselves as underdogs in their Euro 2016 quarter-final against Belgium on Friday but such modesty belies their proven ability to bite hard.
The Belgians, who finally came together as a team to demolish Hungary 4-0 in their last-16 match, will start as favourites.
Both sides, though, are fully aware that Wales have proved their mettle against Belgium, beating them 1-0 in Cardiff and drawing in Brussels in the tournament’s qualifying stage.
Belgium, playing before what will be virtually a home crowd in the northern French town of Lille, are under huge pressure for their much-vaunted golden generation to fulfil their promise and finally challenge for a major trophy.
Wales could also claim to have developed a golden generation, spearheaded by Gareth Bale, even if they have fewer illustrious players than the side ranked number two in the world.
“We’re good normally in that situation when we’re right up against it,” Wales defender Chris Gunter said.
“Belgium will be the fancied team and they are right on their own doorstep but it’s something we can use as an advantage.”
All eyes will be on the form of Bale and Eden Hazard.
Bale, the world’s most expensive player, has scored three goals and fired in the cross that led to Northern Ireland’s own goal in Wales’s 1-0 last-16 victory.
His ability to seize the moment, not least at free kicks, could be pivotal.
Hazard came to life against Hungary — as did the whole team after a stuttering start to the campaign. He set up the second goal for Michy Batshuayi and scored with a dashing solo effort two minutes later to crush Hungary’s hopes in what he said was his best-ever game for his country.
The Belgium captain has missed two days of training with a thigh injury, but should he be declared fit to play, he will be returning to the city where he made a name for himself.
The Welsh are playing in their first major tournament since the 1958 World Cup, when they lost in the quarter-finals to eventual champions Brazil.
“Wales are a very strong side, and not just with Gareth Bale; they have other good players,” cautioned Belgian coach Marc Wilmots.
Belgium, however, have greater depth. Wilmots has pointed to playmaker Kevin De Bruyne, who has been a tireless and influential figure. Romelu Lukaku scored 27 goals in 52 appearances for Everton this season and always looks threatening.
“They have players on the pitch and the bench that would grace any international team,” Wales manager Chris Coleman said.
“But in the last four years we’ve had four meetings and won one and drawn two, so there’s nothing to be afraid of.”
Hazard said the Belgians would need to be wary of the Welsh.
“They are a tricky side to play against. They have a very compact unit and they have a great player up front (Bale).”
The winners will reckon to have a fair chance of reaching the final as the semi-finals would pit them against Poland or Portugal, avoiding the powers of France, Italy and Germany.
Neither side will go gentle into that good night on Friday.
New Zealand pounded Wales with pace and intensity and a masterful performance by Beauden Barrett to sweep the three-Test series with a 46-6 victory in Dunedin on Saturday.
Barrett, in a rare promotion from his regular super-sub role to starting fly-half. commanded a relentless attacking game by the All Blacks as he seamlessly took over from the injured Aaron Cruden.
Wales started strongly, desperate to salvage something from a tough series against the world champions, but were effectively on the ropes after 10 minutes.
By half-time the All Blacks were ahead 18-6 and they piled on a further 28 points after the break.
Barrett finished with a personal total of 26 points from two tries, five conversions and two penalties.
Ben Smith, George Moala, Dane Coles. Israel Dagg also scored for the All Blacks.
Wales were unable to cross the All Blacks line with their points courtesy of two Dan Biggar penalties.
With the All Blacks convincingly winning the first two Tests, coach Steve Hansen used the dead rubber to tinker with combinations in what proved to be a smooth transition.
It should have benefitted Wales who were surprised in particular at the naming of Moala at centre but instead Moala and debutants Elliot Dixon and replacement Liam Squire played like seasoned veterans.
The overwhelming scoreline extended New Zealand’s domination over Wales to 29 consecutive Tests since they last lost 63 years ago, and stretched New Zealand’s unbeaten run against all sides on home soil to 41 matches.
Wales controlled the game at the start. They sent a high kick to Julian Savea, which the recalled wing dropped, drove over the rucks to claim turnovers and had first points on the board with a Biggar penalty.
But when the All Blacks settled the momentum shifted and the world champions began to camp for increasingly long periods in Welsh territory.
A Barret penalty levelled the score, and although Wales immediately regained the lead with a Biggar penalty from the kick off in the 16th minute it would be the last time they would score.
The All Blacks put away their kick-chase game and used Ben Smith and Israel Dagg to attack at pace down the right flank making life a nightmare for Wales wing Hallam Amos.
Smith scored the first try in a marginal call over whether he touched the ball down before his leg slid over the sideline.
Moala, recalled after nearly a year in the wilderness for his second Test, bagged the second try which was again decided by television replays after Liam Williams appeared to rip the ball away before it hit the ground.
Wales turned down the chance of a penalty just on half-time and opted for a five-metre scrum but then lost the ball when they tried to attack the line.
Barrett scored his two tries early in the second half and was instrumental in igniting the attack which led to Dane Coles try, with Dagg running the length of the field to score his try in the last movement of the game.
For a dead-rubber match in a series already won by the All Blacks, the issue of team selection for the third test against Wales in Dunedin has created much debate in rugby-mad New Zealand this week.
The All Blacks sealed the series against Wales with a 36-22 victory in Wellington last Saturday, having opened their international season with a 39-21 victory in the first game in Auckland on June 11.
Steve Hansen’s side had been under scrutiny for how they would evolve without six stalwarts who ended their international careers after anchoring the side to World Cup victory last year.
He named six uncapped players in his squad for the Wales series with an eye on regenerating the team for next year’s British and Irish Lions tour and the 2019 World Cup in Japan.
So far, though, only centre Seta Tamanivalu and openside flanker Ardie Savea have made their debuts, with utility back Damian McKenzie, loose forwards Elliot Dixon and Liam Squire and prop Ofa Tu’ungafasi yet to make the matchday side.
If Hansen is considering giving those players, and possibly one-test flyhalf Lima Sopoaga, an opportunity in Dunedin, he was giving little away earlier this week.
“You’ll have to wait until Thursday. There is no point asking questions about the selection of team,” he told reporters on Sunday, adding that it made no sense to give his Wales counterpart Warren Galtland advance notice of the side.
“There’s no point in telling ‘Gats’ about the team so he can prepare for it, he’ll have to play the guessing game like you.”
Local media took Hansen up on the challenge, suggesting it would be the perfect time to include Dixon for veteran Jerome Kaino as blindside flanker, while introducing the combative Squire off the bench.
Savea’s dynamic performances have also prompted calls for him to be given a start ahead of incumbent Sam Cane, who served a four-year apprenticeship under former captain Richie McCaw.
Hansen’s biggest issue, however, remains in midfield, where the departures of Ma’a Nonu and Conrad Smith to French clubs after the World Cup created a void.
Ryan Crotty and Malakai Fekitoa have been the preferred pairing so far, though they have not quite gelled as expected.
Hansen, however, said it would take time to rebuild a new pairing in the midfield, while Charlie Ngatai, who has not been considered due to concussion, and Sonny Bill Williams (Olympics) likely to press their claims in the Rugby Championship.
“I don’t think we’ve filled all the gaps yet. It’s too early after two tests,” Hansen said. “We’ve got to fit Sonny back in when he comes back … and Charlie Ngatai, he’s a pretty special player too.
“Midfield, we’re still working away quietly at.”
Wales enjoyed their greatest day in football for more than half a century by overwhelming Russia 3-0 on Monday to win Group B at Euro 2016 ahead of their oldest rivals England.
It was an outcome that had seemed unlikely when England beat them 2-1 last Thursday, and the thousands of Welsh supporters could have been forgiven for a feeling of disbelief as they celebrated every touch of the ball with “oles” before finally feeling free to chant “we are top of the league”.
They will play a third-placed team in Paris on Saturday while England face the Group F runners-up and Wales will go into the knockout stage with realistic hopes of reaching the last eight.
“It was never about beating England, it was about qualifying,” Wales manager Chris Coleman told reporters, adding that he had never seen a better performance from a Welsh team.
Russia, bottom of the standings with one point, obtained with an undeserved last-minute equaliser against England, go home with much to think about before they host the World Cup in two years time under a new coach.
The story of the night, however, was a Welsh one.
In what had been described as the country’s biggest game since the 1958 World Cup quarter-final, they rediscovered the attacking brio that enabled them to beat Slovakia in the opening game.
Gareth Bale, the scorer of a direct free kick in each of the two previous games to equal a European Championship record, was close with several fine efforts before becoming the first player since Milan Baros in 2004 to score in three successive games at the European finals.
He was outstanding in running at a Russian defence that allowed far too much space to him and Aaron Ramsey, breaking in support of Sam Vokes, the surprise selection in attack in place of Hal Robson-Kanu.
That defence was not helped by a revamped midfield being outplayed by Joe Ledley and the tigerish Joe Allen.
Russia survived an early Bale chance but were two goals down inside 20 minutes after strikes by Ramsey, named man of the match, and wing back Neil Taylor.
Bale made further chances for Vokes and Ramsey before the latter, Wales’ only other regular Champions League player, returned the compliment twice in the second half.
“We’ve topped the group which nobody probably saw coming,” Ramsey said.
“Our main target was to get out of the group. To finish top is a fantastic feeling.”
“It’s probably the best performance I’ve been involved in with Wales,” Bale added.
New Zealand produced a ruthless second-half display to defeat Wales 36-22 in the second Test in Wellington on Saturday and maintain one of world rugby’s longest winning streaks.
The world champions ran in five tries to three to claim the three-Test series with a match to spare and clinch their 28th straight win over Wales, dating back to 1953.
Valiant Wales kept pace with New Zealand for 51 minutes but had no answers when the All Blacks went up a notch, orchestrated by Beauden Barrett and Aaron Smith.
Wales coach Warren Gatland said his side was competitive but a three-try burst early in the second half effectively sealed the result for the New Zealanders.
“I’d like to think they’ll know they were in a tough Test match tonight,” he said.
“It was really physical, we took it to them but they’ve had a 10-minute period when they’ve been absolutely clinical and ruthless and that’s proved the difference.”
Wales repeatedly worked themselves into threatening positions, only for attacks to falter through basic mistakes.
Injuries to key players Aaron Cruden and Malakai Fekitoa meant the All Blacks never reached their slick best in the first half, with scores tied 10-10 at the break.
Skipper Kieran Read paid tribute to Wales, saying the All Blacks were unable to find their rhythm until after the break.
“They came out flying at us and we had to dig deep. They’re an exceptionably good side, they pushed us and we had to work really hard,” he said.
“We got a bit of extra ball in the second half and made it count.”
New Zealand suffered a setback in the first two minutes when Fekitoa was forced into the blood bin after a head clash with Jamie Roberts.
Wales ran at his inexperienced replacement Seta Tamanivalu but failed to capitalise and Fekitoa helped set up Israel Dagg’s 20th-minute try when he returned.
Dagg, playing his 50th Test after 10 months in the international wilderness, wrong-footed the Welsh defence with a dummy pass before touching down.
Fly-half Cruden was stretchered off eight minutes before the break with a possible neck injury, with Barrett coming off the bench.
Wales lifted their intensity before half time and were rewarded with a 39th-minute try when Jonathan Davies’ looping pass found Alun Wyn Jones unmarked on the wing.
Fekitoa did not come back out for the second half, which started as an arm-wrestle with scores locked 10-10.
Ben Smith broke the deadlock when he slipped through two defenders after Barrett set him up in the 51st minute.
Smith returned the favour for Barrett three minutes later, with the fly-half stretching out to dot the ball between the posts and make it 24-10 with the conversion. From there it turned into a romp as Smith set up Waisake Naholo five minutes later to put the result beyond doubt.
The relentless All Blacks were still not done and Ardie Savea burst from deep within his own half for another five-pointer to send the sell-out crowd of 36,000 into a frenzy.
Liam William and Jonathan Davies both scored consolation tries in the last 10 minutes but by then it was too late.
The third Test is in Dunedin next Saturday.
Substitute Daniel Sturridge stabbed home a dramatic winner in stoppage time to steer England towards a 2-1 win over Wales and top spot in their Euro 2016 group on Thursday.
A goal down to Wales at halftime after Gareth Bale struck a wonderful free kick from 30 metres, England manager Roy Hodgson brought on forwards Sturridge and Jamie Vardy, whom many fans had wanted to see start the game, to replace the ineffectual Raheem Sterling and Harry Kane.
It turned out to be a pivotal change as Vardy, England’s Footballer-of-the-Year in the Premier League this season for his goalscoring at champions Leicester City, grabbed an equaliser in the 56th minute.
Then, with England piling on the pressure in the dying seconds, Sturridge scrambled his way through the box to fire home the winner from close range.
The result left England at the top of Group B on four points, ahead of Wales and Slovakia on three and Russia bottom with just one point.
“It’s a great feeling, unbelievable,” Sturridge said. “I’m grateful for the opportunity. It’s only one more game in the group so no-one should get too excited. But it was an amazing feeling. It’s great to help the boys win the game.”
Wales would have won the group with victory, but instead they will meet Russia in their final game with their destiny still very much in their own hands.
“Obviously, we’re massively disappointed but I’m proud of everyone. Inside, we still feel strong, we still feel happy,” said Wales goalscorer Bale.
“We’re enjoying it and the tournament’s not over yet. We’re still in the thick of it. We’ll keep fighting all the way to qualify, and the fans have been amazing once again.”
All talk of the recent fan violence in Marseille and Lille dissipated as the game kicked off amid a cacophony of noise and singing from both sets of fans.
England dominated most of the first half and Sterling could have put them ahead as early as the seventh minute, but he skied the ball over the bar from close range, and it did not get any better from there on for the Manchester City winger.
With Wayne Rooney dropping deep to pull the strings in midfield, England sought to make the most of the space behind the Welsh full backs, but their final ball into the box was often a poor one.
They went behind just before halftime when Rooney clattered into Hal Robson-Kanu, with Bale driving a dipping free kick over the England wall and past keeper Joe Hart, who perhaps should have done better having got a hand to the ball.
The jubilant Wales fans spent the break bouncing a beach ball around behind the goal, but the appearance of Vardy and Sturridge soon put a stop to their merriment.
Eleven minutes after coming on, the pair combined to draw England level. Sturridge lifted the ball into the box where it came off the head of Wales captain Ashley Williams, and Vardy pounced to score.
England continued to apply relentless pressure but were held at bay until deep into stoppage time.
Sturridge charged into the box, took a ball from Dele Alli, wriggled past one challenge and held off another before beating Wales keeper Wayne Hennessey with a powerful finish, conjured from little backlift.
“Everyone wants to be part of the playing lineup and coming off the bench you want to try to make an impact,” Vardy said.
Wales captain Ashley Williams remained upbeat, despite the outcome.
“It’s tough for everyone but we’ve got another game on Monday, so we won’t get down about it,” he said.
Kieran Read celebrated his elevation to the AllBlacks captaincy by leading a come-from-behind victory as his team produced a lethal finish to crush Wales 39-21 in the first Test in Auckland on Saturday.
In a Test which swung from scintillating to scrappy, in the end it was the pace and intensity of the All Blacks in the closing 20 minutes that determined the outcome.
It was an “awesome feeling” said Read who takes over from World Cup winning skipper Richie McCaw.
“The boys showed some belief and showed that connection that we needed. It was a tight spot.”
Read paid credit to the All Blacks bench who come on to pick up the speed of the game when it mattered.
“We’re an 80 minute team and the bench come on to lift our team and it’s what we expect of them.”
Wales coach Warren Gatland rated his side’s performance as “brilliant for 60 minutes.
“The relentlessness the All Blacks bring and keep playing for 80 minutes. They keep coming at you.”
Wales looked promising — leading 18-15 at half-time and 21-18 with 18 minutes remaining — and sensed their 63-year wait for a famous victory over the world champions was on the cards.
But, when the All Blacks unleashed their trademark storming finish they wrapped up the game with late tries to Waisake Naholo, Read and Nathan Harris.
Naholo scored a double for the All Blacks and Julian Savea also touched down with Aaron Cruden landing four conversions and two penalties.
For Wales, Taulupe Faletau and Rhys Webb scored tries with Dan Biggar contributing a conversion and three penalties.
Wales lock Alun Wyn Jones had the honour of leading the teams on to the field in his centenary Test but then blotted his copybook by giving away an early penalty.
Cruden, who slotted comfortably into the backline general’s role vacated by Dan Carter, hit the uprights with that kick but had the All Blacks on the board soon after with a close-range shot.
Wales muscled up to force the All Blacks back to their own line and quickly regained the lead with a try to backrower Faletau.
They drew the All Blacks defence into one corner then went wide to the other side, taking right wing Naholo off his line to cover a barren midfield which allowed Faletau to cross unopposed in the corner.
Soon after the restart the All Blacks struck twice in quick succession.
Naholo stepped around Hallam Amos to lead the All Blacks deep into Welsh territory where Cruden slotted a precise cross kick into the arms of Savea who scored in the left corner.
It was one of the few bright spots in Savea’s game who had trouble containing explosive Welsh wing George North.
It was a 30-metre North break that again lifted Wales’ spirits but their attempt to test Ben Smith with a high kick backfired.
The All Blacks fullback took the ball under pressure and launched a counter-attack that ended 80 metres downfield with a try to Naholo.
As the game morphed into a frantic period of attack and counter-attack, marred by handling lapses, it was Wales who broke the deadlock.
Biggar landed two penalties before Liam Williams opened up the All Blacks with a burst through a fragmented defence and put Rhys Webb in for a try under the posts.
Cruden and Biggar swapped penalties early in the second half before the All Blacksstepped up several gears.
Naholo scored his second try running off an Aaron Smith tap penalty close to the line.
The power of New Zealand’s bench was evident as Patrick Tuipulotou sent Read over and then Charlie Faumuina set up Harris’ try.
The second Test is in Wellington next Saturday.
Substitute Hal Robson-Kanu scored a joyously celebrated 81st-minute winner as Wales marked their major tournament return by edging Slovakia 2-1 in Saturday’s Euro 2016 opener in Bordeaux.
Playing their first game at a major championship since the 1958 World Cup, Wales took a 10th-minute lead courtesy of Gareth Bale’s fine free-kick, only for Slovakia substitute Ondrej Duda to equalise.
But with nine minutes remaining, Robson-Kanu, recently released by English second-tier side Reading, scuffed a shot past goalkeeper Matus Kozacik to give Chris Coleman’s side a huge boost in their bid to reach the last 16.
“It was a memorable moment, a historic moment for our country,” Real Madrid star Balesaid.
“Hal to get the winner is amazing. The subs have to make an impact and he was amazing when he came on. Everyone has a part to play and we will keep fighting.”
Robson-Kanu’s strike ended Wales’s four-game winless run and tees the European Championship debutants up perfectly for Thursday’s hotly anticipated second Group B fixture against neighbours England in Lens.
Jan Kozak’s Slovakia, previously unbeaten in eight games, tackle Russia in Lille on Wednesday knowing that a second defeat could be fatal.
The match at the elegant Stadium Bordeaux had been billed in some quarters as a battle between Bale and Marek Hamsik, and the Slovakia playmaker was the first of the pair to catch the eye.
After robbing Bale, he surged past Ashley Williams, David Edwards and James Chester before drilling a left-foot shot past goalkeeper Danny Ward — making his first start in place of the injured Wayne Hennessey — but Ben Davies slid in almost miraculously to divert the ball behind for a corner.
When Bale’s moment arrived 10 minutes in, there was to be no such reprieve for Slovakia.
Presented with a free-kick 30 yards from goal, he slammed the ball over the wall and as Kozacik moved to his left, it darted in the other direction and plunged low into the net.
“Are you watching England?” crowed the Wales fans, before honouring former manager Gary Speed, who took his own life in November 2011, with a cry of “There’s only Gary Speed!”
Boos emanated from the red-clad hordes in the Wales end moments later, however, as a replay on the stadium’s big screens revealed that Martin Skrtel had escaped punishment after catching Jonny Williams in the throat with his elbow, barely six feet from one of the goal-line officials.
The teams exchanged chances early in the second half — Robert Mak firing over, Balesending Kozacik scrambling with a downward header — before a double substitution brought Slovakia back into the game.
Slovakia coach Kozak sent on Adam Nemec and Duda, with Michal Duris and Patrik Hrovosky giving way, and within a minute Duda had scored, arrowing a shot past Ward’s left hand from Mak’s right-wing cut-back.
It made him the first player to score past Wales at a major tournament since a 17-year-old Pele at the 1958 World Cup.
Hamsik and Mak threatened before Coleman made a double change of his own, sending on Joe Ledley, 35 days after he fractured a fibula, and Robson-Kanu, who was to make a major impact.
After crossing for Aaron Ramsey to head over, the roles were reversed to decisive effect, the Arsenal man skipping past Skrtel and Robson-Kanu steering the ball home.
There was a late scare when Nemec wobbled the post with a header, but Wales survived.
“I don’t think they were better,” complained Kozak. “I think a draw would have been fairer.”