Forgive and forget? Alain Rolland can forget all about forgiveness: he will for ever occupy a place in the Welsh gallery of sporting rogues, in the same way that his fellow officials at this tournament – Wayne Barnes, Bryce Lawrence, Nigel Owens – feature prominently in the refereeing bestiaries of New Zealand, South Africa and Samoa. The questions that matter now, in the gut-churning, soul-sapping aftermath of a World Cup semi-final that will be long remembered for everything except the quality of its rugby, is whether the members of this fine Wales team will ever forgive themselves for not unlocking the door to the land of legend and fable.
They could have been so much more than contenders. If their line-out had not imploded for a spell in the second half; if Stephen Jones had pushed his conversion of Mike Phillips' excellent short-side try three or four inches to the right; if the same player had taken advantage of a perfect attacking position nine minutes from the end of normal time to drop a goal; if Leigh Halfpenny had put an extra watt of power into his long-range penalty at the death... if any of these things had happened, the loss of Adam Jones from the front row of the scrum and the dismissal of Sam Warburton for a tip-tackle on Vincent Clerc would have been overcome. And then there really would have been a party.
If, if, if, if. The most irrelevant four words in the whole of sport, all of them the same. And we may as well add another, while we're at it: what would have happened if the International Rugby Board had not decreed at the start of this tournament, and again during it, that dangerous tackles of any kind were in zero-tolerance territory: indeed, that a referee satisfied that such a tackle had been perpetrated should start from the assumption that it is a red-card offence and then work his way down? In other words, that without a very good reason to show mercy, he should move straight to the ultimate sanction without passing "Go".
This is an alarmingly ruthless notion of justice, surely: one that might be enthusiastically applauded in the inner circles of certain extremist judiciaries of the ultra-religious variety, but nowhere else. By issuing public diktats of this kind, the IRB's referee manager, Paddy O'Brien, left his officials hostages to fortune. Patently, Warburton's tackle on Clerc was a poor one: the little wing from Toulouse was lifted, tipped beyond the horizontal and dropped on to his shoulders, and while some or all of these contributory factors may have been wholly accidental, it did not really matter. What mattered very much was that Rolland was in no position to use his discretion without putting himself on the wrong side of those assessing his performance.
Had things been different, he might have felt able to say to himself: "We're 18 minutes into the biggest international match since 2007, millions are watching, no one died... yellow card. If the citing officer wants to take it further, that's his business." As it was, such an approach would have rebounded hard on him. Therefore, the New Testament route was closed. It was Old Testament all the way, and hard luck Wales.
Immediately the decision was made, there was bemusement in the Welsh ranks. "We were sitting on the bench as Sam came walking towards us and we all assumed he'd been shown yellow," said Ryan Jones, the Lions loose forward who was a leading figure in the brave Welsh rebellion after the interval. "Then the little red thing popped up in the corner of the big screen. I was incredibly surprised and felt so sorry for Sam, but what can you do? Shit happens. We couldn't pick up the ball and go home, could we?"
Yesterday, 24 hours or so on, the emotions were still raw. "How do I feel? Empty," said Shaun Edwards, the Wales defence coach who, during his days as a rugby league player of the very highest class, was deliberately tipped upside down and driven into the ground on many occasions. "It's horrible when it happens to you, but this wasn't like that at all," he argued. "I've watched it back: it was an incredibly dominant hit by a player far more powerful than the guy being tackled, and the bodies ended up in that position. This is quite a trying time, to be honest. We should be playing in the premier event in world rugby, and we're not."
Edwards was certainly right on his last point. If the disappearance of Adam Jones from the Red Dragons' forward equation – the world's best tight-head prop tore a calf muscle inside seven minutes and will spend the rest of the tournament on crutches – was wounding, Warburton's departure was a savage blow upon the bruise, yet with Jamie Roberts and Toby Faletau to the fore, Wales were responsible for virtually all the rugby produced in a low-calibre contest. France? They showed next to nothing, apart from some sublime tactical kicks from Dimitri Yachvili and the occasional broken-field scamper from Morgan Parra, which would probably not have occurred had there been an opposing open-side flanker in the vicinity.
Marc Lièvremont, the head coach of Les Bleus, was in one of his "frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn" moods afterwards. "I'm not going to brood or be unhappy just because it wasn't the best match," he said before suggesting that his side had a "good guardian angel" taking care of them from on high. He talked of character and unity and solidarity – "extraordinary solidarity", in fact – and while he acknowledged that his side had been inhibited ("constipated" might have been a better word) he would not be shaken from his view that the French deserved to make it through to the final.
There was more of the same from the captain, Thierry Dusautoir. "I know a lot of people are annoyed to see us in the final," he said. "They think we are not talented. But we play with our hearts. Sometimes, when one team goes down to 14 men, it is difficult for the other team to play their game." Edwards wasn't buying this for a second. "I don't know what he's talking about, really," he said on hearing of the flanker's pronouncement. "Fourteen against 15? Tell Thierry I'd have swapped places with him any day."
As on the previous evening, sentences were broken by silences that bordered on the tearful. Players like Halfpenny, who played so brilliantly only to fail by a few inches to kick the 50-metre goal that would almost certainly have won the game for his country, could barely speak at all. "All the work I've put into my kicking from a young age came down to that moment," he muttered. Not even Edwards, an altogether tougher individual, could find a way of putting his message across without a struggle. "I'll tell you this," he said when asked for his assessment of Warburton's contribution over the course of the tournament. "I'm proud to see my name alongside Sam's." At that moment, he was choking it all back.
Wales still have another game to play: the game no one loves, the "kissing your sister" match for third place against Australia. Four years ago, Argentina embraced it in the spirit of adventure and came closer than any previous team to justifying its existence. But then, they were ecstatic at having progressed so far. There is no ecstasy about the Red Dragons right now. Just agony.
France: Penalties Parra 3; Wales: Try Phillips; Penalty Hook.
France M Médard; V Clerc, A Rougerie, M Mermoz, A Palisson; M Parra, D Yachvili; J-B Poux (F Barcella, 45), W Servat (D Szarzewski, 45), N Mas, P Pape (J Pierre, 63), L Nallet, T Dusautoir (capt), J Bonnaire (F Ouedraogo, 78), I Harinordoquy.
Wales L Halfpenny; S Williams, J Davies, J Roberts, G North; J Hook (S Jones, 46), M Phillips; G Jenkins, H Bennett, A Jones (P James, 9), L Charteris, A W Jones (B Davies, 62), D Lydiate (R Jones, 56), S Warburton (capt), T Faletau.
Referee A Rolland (Ireland).
James Lawton, Jonathan Davies, Pages 16&17
Man for man marking: by Chris Hewett
15 Maxime Médard Scratchy and scatty in equal measure. A grisly performance from a full-back who had previously looked the best in show. 4
14 Vincent Clerc The wing at the centre of the controversy, which really wasn't his fault. What little he had to do, he did effectively. 6
13 Aurélien Rougerie Lots of tackling, precious little fun. Will the big centre show a thing or two in attack at some point in this competition? 5
12 Maxime Mermoz Some lovely touches here and there, but too few to celebrate with enthusiasm. Another restricted by the French approach. 5.5
11 Alexis Palisson He should have plenty of energy left for the final. A gifted back struggling to show the best of himself – and he's not alone. 4.5
10 Morgan Parra Nailed his penalties, made his tackles and cut free in open field on three occasions. In the circumstances, a decent performance. 7
9 Dimitri Yachvili Not fit, but still massively influential. His decision-making was excellent once again, his box-kicking majestic. A key figure. 7.5
1 Jean-Baptiste Poux Should have made more of Adam Jones' early departure. Failed to touch the heights of the quarter-final round. 4.5
2 William Servat Mysteriously withdrawn five minutes into the second half after starting brightly. Still the competition's best hooker. 6
3 Nicolas Mas Had his successes at the set piece, but conceded the penalty that might have handed victory to Wales. Not at his best. 5
4 Pascal Pape Nowhere near as impressive as in the quarter-final against England, he was caught by Mike Phillips down the short side in the try-scoring move. 4.5
5 Lionel Nallet Strong at the line-out and his physical presence meant a great deal to Les Bleus. The least of their problems. 6.5
6 Thierry Dusautoir The captain has been in better fettle during the knockout stages. No one works harder or shows greater discipline. 7
7 Julien Bonnaire Burgled the Welsh line-out, tackled his weight and even contributed a high-calibre, rolling kick to touch. Impressive. 7
8 Imanol Harinordoquy Virtuosity against England, something less here – not that the Basque failed to show. Very disruptive at the line-out. 7
Fabien Barcella : On early in the second half, he hit his share of rucks. Yet to fire on all cylinders. 5
Dimitri Szarzewski: Another early show off the bench, he carried the ball strongly yet failed to match Servat. 5
Julien Pierre: On at a difficult time, brought some physicality to the tackle area. 5.5
Fulgence Ouedraogo: Little opportunity to make a name for himself. Nothing to report. 5
15 Leigh Halfpenny Tearful after the game but terrific during it. Blamed himself for missing the long late penalty, but could have done little more. 8
14 George North A fumble here and there, but the youngster always offered himself in the heavy traffic. A rich talent. 6
13 Jonathan Davies A rabbit in the headlights early on, he found his role in the great resurgence and played a part. 5
12 Jamie Roberts He may be the player of the tournament. No Welshman deserved to lose this game, but the centre can legitimately scream "injustice". 9
11 Shane Williams On his wing, off his wing, up the middle... the little wing tried all he knew but couldn't make the decisive interjection. 6
10 James Hook Not his finest hour by a long chalk. A flawed kicking game from both hand and tee, with his all-round management no better. 4
9 Mike Phillips If he plays like this for Bayonne, the French will love him. On Saturday, they hated the sight of him. 8.5
1 Gethin Jenkins Took on an ever greater degree of responsibility in an effort to shore up the ruins. A splendid contribution. 7.5
2 Huw Bennett The most improved player in the Welsh pack, he coped remarkably well following the loss of his tight-head prop. 7
3 Adam Jones Nine measly minutes is not enough to make a judgement, but he looked up for it. What might have been... 5
4 Luke Charteris Strong and energetic around the field, he is a player transformed. The line-out? Not so brilliant, sadly. 6
5 Alun Wyn Jones One of the heartbeats of the pack, his performance dripped with emotion. Again, the line-out let him down. 6
6 Dan Lydiate One of the Trojans when it came to work rate. It is no easy life, playing in a two-man back row. 6.5
7 Sam Warburton What can you say? He would have been a standout performer, no doubt, but for the tackle that did for him and his team. 3.5
8 Toby Faletau Astonishing. Still raw in many respects, but his boundless energy, mixed with courage and skill, marked him out as something special. 9
Paul James: Maximum respect. A loose-head prop by nature, he filled the massive gap left by Jones and gave Wales a platform. 7.5
Stephen Jones: Introduced to nurse Wales to what would have been a famous victory, he came up short. The missed conversion hurt badly. 5.5
Ryan Jones: Drew on every last smidgen of experience, he was at the heart of the second-half rally. A big presence. 7
Bradley Davies: Carried strongly and was largely error-free at a nerve-jangling stage in proceedings. Did himself proud. 7