Wales keep their pride after a devastating fall
Wales 8 France 9: Gatland left 'hollow' after his young team come agonisingly close despite losing inspirational captain Warburton to controversial red card in 19th minute and hitting post with conversion
There was no chance to fling a "j'accuse" in the face of Marc Lièvremont. With his pencil-thin moustache perched above an upper lip curled in part amusement, part defiance, the France coach held his hands up as soon as the charge was laid. "I don't care at all whether it was a good match or not," Lièvremont said, "or whether Wales deserved to win or not. We are in the final and that's it."
As a two-sentence summary of everything that is compelling and gut-wrenchingly unfair in a knockout competition it was tough to beat. The typesetters are at work as we speak on laying the French pen-pics out in the programme for next Sunday's final, their third in seven tournaments after losses to New Zealand in 1987 and Australia in 1999. Wales? Oh, Wales, where to start in describing their demise?
With the sending-off of the captain, Sam Warburton, of course, but also with a performance by the remaining 14 men after his 19th-minute dismissal of obduracy and character and wit and 11 points missed from goal kicks by James Hook, Stephen Jones and Leigh Halfpenny. The margin of Halfpenny's hoof from the centre of the field was a few centimetres; Jones's right-footed conversion, 13 metres infield on the left, of Mike Phillips' fine try after 58 minutes hit a post.
This was not to say that if Wales had ever retaken the lead after Morgan Parra's 22nd-minute penalty equalised Hook's opener from near the touchline, France would have been unable to find a counter punch. It was just that Les Bleus fell into a fear-induced torpor that left Wales, who also lost the crucial prop Adam Jones to injury horribly early, to regret their missed chances all the more.
The incident that removed Warburton from what might have been the night of the 23-year-old's young life began at a France line-out near halfway. Warburton – a magnificent tackler and poacher throughout Wales's run to a first semi-final since 1987 – was standing off before he tackled Vincent Clerc.
The little wing, with six tries in the tournament, was tipped in mid-air and the pair fell backwards towards the French side. The trouble was that the Welshman lost his grip and Clerc landed on his neck and head. Alain Rolland, the Irish referee of the 2007 final who happens to have a French father, was positioned perfectly and whistled in an instant. A little rectangle of red signalled Warburton's sad exit and sent Wales's New Zealander coach Warren Gatland into baffled despair.
"I just feel hollow," said Gatland, whose side now face the match no one wants: Friday's third place play-off. "The destiny of having an opportunity was taken away from us. It probably warranted a yellow card. Sam let him go, he didn't drive him into the ground. The decision ruined the match."
Lièvremont disagreed, saying: "It's quite disappointing in a semi-final that the match was unbalanced so quickly. However, it was a dangerous tackle and it deserved a red card." One of the International Board referees' "big five" areas of scrutiny they have been emphasising is foul play including "tip tackles". Their mantra has been "start with a red card and work down".
It was nothing like as wilfully brutal as the dump tackle by All Black pair Tana Umaga and Keven Mealamu that dislocated Brian O'Driscoll's shoulder in the first Test of the 2005 Lions tour in Christchurch. Unusually, Rolland did not pause to consult either of his assistants while there was an angry reaction by French players confronting the Welsh captain. Rolland sent off France centre Florian Fritz for a similar offence playing for Toulouse against Wasps last January.
In the 17 minutes before the card France looked clueless. They didn't improve much after it either, abandoning all ambition. Most of the backs kicked out of hand, including Aurélien Rougerie who puts boot to ball about as often as Lièvremont buys a drink for the French press. Jamie Roberts had been retrained by Wales's fitness coach Adam Beard to run like Usain Bolt, with an economic knee lift to rein in his splayed feet. No one said anything about packing down on the side of the scrum but Roberts did that too. After some initial wobbles, including a collapse to give Parra the first of his three penalties (Dimitri Yachvili had kicked against England, but was nursing a bruised thigh), the Welsh held their own.
Perhaps France always knew where they were heading but temporarily lost the map. When Alun Wyn Jones won a line-out and Roberts, Ryan Jones and the titanic Toby Faletau drove towards the 22, Phillips' try gave hope to the Welsh supporters. Nicolas Mas crept into a ruck to concede the 75th-minute penalty from Halfpenny that fell just short. A last wave of 27 Welsh phases was held too far from the French line for Stephen Jones to move into the drop-goal pocket.
So France and their impressive No 8 Imanol Harinordoquy march on, predictably unpredictable in losing to New Zealand and Tonga in their pool, and knocking England out in the last eight; a whole less than the sum of their parts. But, as the moustachioed man said, they are in the final now.
Wales: L Halfpenny; G North, J Davies, J Roberts, S Williams; J Hook (S Jones, 45), M Phillips; G Jenkins, H Bennett, A Jones (P James, 9), L Charteris, A W Jones (B Davies, 61), D Lydiate (R Jones, 55), T Faletau, S Warburton (capt).
France: M Médard; V Clerc, A Rougerie, M Mermoz, A Palisson; M Parra, D Yachvili; J-B Poux (F Barcella, 44), W Servat (D Szarzewski, 44), N Mas, P Papé (J Pierre, 61), L Nallet, T Dusautoir (capt), I Harinordoquy, J Bonnaire (F Ouedraogo, 75).
Referee: A Rolland (Ireland).
Pens: Parra 3
How the Wales players rated
LEIGH HALFPENNY 7/10
Safety personified at back, perhaps his scuttling runs were more sideways than forward but, oh, if only his 50-metre kick had gone over...
GEORGE NORTH 6/10
What a future he has but there was a lurking threat about this performance more than an actual one. Isolated in the second half when he might have been entrusted with making midfield gains.
JONATHAN DAVIES 5/10
Not to blame for a pass in the face from Jamie Roberts but otherwise a firefighter when Wales required a blaze starter
JAMIE ROBERTS 7/10
Muscular efforts that would have made Hercules blush. Centre, flanker, superman.
SHANE WILLIAMS 6/10
You could understand why when his side was reduced to 14 men he returned bravely to old ways of looking everywhere for the ball, but the gain-line was not his friend.
JAMES HOOK 6/10
Even when it was 15 versus 15 there was not the same sense of Hook being able to free the Welsh threequarters that might have been expected from the man he had replaced, the injured Rhys Priestland.
MIKE PHILLIPS 8/10
Will arrive in French club rugby soon with Bayonne commanding great respect. Dynamic try to remember alongside his quarter-final dive against Ireland.
GETHIN JENKINS 8/10
Extraordinary steadiness in some scrums with seven or seven-and-a-half men. Prop Jenkins will be hurting this morning, both physically and spiritually.
HUW BENNETT 6/10
Had mastered Wales's dodgy line-out superbly until this match. Four lost throws betrayed the pressure his side were under.
ADAM JONES 4/10
Crucial player, he lasted a painfully short nine minutes before being struck down by a calf injury.
LUKE CHARTERIS 6/10
The vast improvements achieved during the past year met a stern test in the French bruisers Lionel Nallet and Pascal Papé.
ALUN WYN JONES 7/10
Probably best to be on the pitch with him to appreciate his qualities of leadership . Undemonstrative but gave his all.
DAN LYDIATE 7/10
Required to do the work of two men after the captain Sam Warburton's dismissal. However, he almost brought it off.
TOBY FALETAU 9/10
Heart of oak, legs of jelly by the end. If Wales did not deserve to lose, Faletau, the Tongan Taff, deserved it least of all. A bloody great bull of a man.
SAM WARBURTON 4/10
If we say in life that the good die young, then rugby's stoic and talented get sent off. So sad for Warburton, but he'll hold on tighter next time.
Stephen Jones 6/10 A few centimetres away from retiring happy (if that's what's coming) with his conversion. No way to celebrate your 103rd cap.
Paul James 8/10 Took a few minutes to settle to a task he could never have anticipated, but stared the French down manfully after that.
Bradley Davies 5/10 In what became a basic game, his head-down bashing might have been seen more.
Ryan Jones 6/10 Twenty-five minutes of toughing it out, but amazingly his rangy running has been taken to a new level by younger back-row team-mates.
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