James Lawton: Ref calls it wrong and Wales campaign is slam dunked

Split-second decision at a stroke kills one of the most inspiring stories of this or any other sporting tournament

The card referee Alain Rolland showed Sam Warburton, one of the great, if not the greatest man of this World Cup of rugby suddenly made hollow, was coloured red – but not so densely that you couldn't see the outline of the joker.

A joker who didn't give much more than a split second to weigh the meaning of what he saw, a joker who made the mistake of forgetting – or maybe ignoring – the fact that his arbitrary decision not only cut dead one of the most inspiring stories of this or most any other major sports tournament of recent memory but also booted into touch any sense of natural justice

Warburton, the 23-year-old Welsh captain, had displayed stunningly mature leadership right up to the moment he tackled Vincent Clerc in the 19th minute of yesterday's semi-final ferociously enough to lift him up into the air.

He then released the Frenchman, allowing him to fall to the ground on his back – a circumstance that, no one could deny, brought the Welshman into the dangerous zone of "spearing" offences. Though an absence of malice seemed obvious – despite the gesticulations of Clerc's team-mates – a yellow card and the sin-bin seemed the likely consequence.

That would have been a minor version of Solomon's wisdom. Instead, we had the red card that changed and, yes, ruined the balance and competitive integrity of this World Cup – we had another example of what happens when a referee plays too carelessly the role of God.

The protests were in one sense routinely inevitable. Wales's New Zealand coach Warren Gatland spoke of his empty feeling and the fact that right through to his last days in the game he would insist that a yellow card would not only have been just, but would also have prevented a terrible distortion of the natural course of events.

His defence coach Shaun Edwards fought to suppress his anger. And also his belief that if the kicking of James Hook and Stephen Jones had been marginally more accurate and Leigh Halfpenny's long penalty attempt been just a metre or two higher – we would all be discussing not a 9-8 defeat but one of the most heroic triumphs in the history of the World Cup.

For Warburton, who was awash with adrenaline when he made his ill-starred tackle – and filled with belief that once again his young team were seizing another vital moment with absolute conviction – there was only disbelief in his face.

The extent of his descent into despair could best be measured in his eyes. They were empty. As he said, one minute he was making a tackle, the next he was sitting in the stand.

You could only speculate how he might drag himself through the rest of a week of ultimate anti-climax, one framed by the imminence of glory, as the French seemed powerless to resist the force of a 15-man Wales even after the loss of their best scrummager Adam Jones after 10 minutes, and a third place play-off against the losers of today's second semi-final between the All Blacks and Australia

Few teams – or exceptional leaders – have been required to move so swiftly from close to the mountain top to the most unwelcome of cul-de-sacs.

The best hope is that the Welsh team who have so enlivened the seventh World Cup, who have bristled with ambition and precocious quality, can survive the fall while remaining reasonably whole in their understanding of what has been achieved – and what was so palpably within reach despite the shocking departure of their inspiring young leader.

For some time though tranquillity will surely be inaccessible in the hearts of young men like Warburton and Jamie Roberts and Toby Faletau, who at 20 produced what can only be described as a hauntingly brilliant second-half performance when he led the battle against the odds, one that seemed to have been won when Mike Phillips reproduced his killing strike against Ireland in the quarter-final by breaking through a gap in the French defence for the try which gave Jones an aborted attempt to kick Wales into the lead.

In the Welsh camp it will do no one much good calculating the scale of the moral triumph. Morgan Parra kicked the three penalties that took France through to their third final – in their first in 1987 they were eviscerated by the All Blacks and who would not anticipate a similar fate on the form and the demeanour they displayed last night? – and the winning counted far more in the end than the evidence that Wales belonged in another street when it came to commitment and self-belief.

France, for all the brilliance of their quarter-final first half against England, reminded us that in the end they were required to hang on against Martin Johnson's essentially dysfunctional team. In spite of last night's man advantage, France again elected to show us their passive side.

One cameo told a graphic story. It was when Imanol Harinordoquy – arguably the world's greatestNo 8, a man so often lauded for his warrior spirit – slunk away with the ball after Wales had been given the put-in to a late scrum. The Welsh hooker Huw Bennett chased him for the ball, snatching it from his grasp. In the final minutes Wales had about 26 phases, but they could not make one last penetration, they could not fashion a third-time lucky drop at goal.

Sam Warburton stared with glazed eyes into the middle distance – and everyone understood when Warren Gatland spoke of that hollowness in the pit of his stomach. Well, maybe not everyone – perhaps not the joker.

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