Wales vs France, Rugby World Cup 2019: Five things we learned as Sebastien Vahaamahina red card costs Les Bleus

Vahaamahina’s elbow into the face of Aaron Wainwright cost France a place in the World Cup semi-finals

Harry Latham-Coyle
Sunday 20 October 2019 10:22
Rugby World Cup 2019 in numbers

1. France start fast

France could not afford to get dragged into an attritional, forward-based contest. They have neither the big match steel nor grunt in the pack to grind out a victory against a Welsh side designed to do exactly that. What they had to do was invite the Welsh to play their game, broken-field, transition rugby and ask them to expand their repertoire.

To do that, they needed a fast start, and got one. Hitting width and with great appetite to play, they began with pace in space, utilising their dangerous midfield carriers Gael Fickou and Virimi Vakatawa early to break the line and get beyond the Welsh defence. Vakatawa might have been over had Damian Penaud been able to slip his offload into the former sevens star’s hands, but soon after Sebastien Vahaamahina managed to burrow his way through after a powerful driving maul went close.

This is a French side full of flair, with free-runners aplenty, and soon after it was two, with Vakatawa again prominent.

2. Virimi Vakatawa’s brilliance

The story of Virimi Vakatawa is strange, sad and special. Born in New Zealand and raised in Fiji, he was brought to France by great Fijian wing Sireli Bobo, qualifying for his adopted nation in 2013 and immediately being brought into the French sevens circuit.

With flamenco footwork, pace, power and an offloading game to rival the world’s best, Vakatawa was one of the true stars of the sevens circuit, and parachuted in to the French national team set-up ahead of the 2016 Six Nations, and immediately given a prominent role as a roaming wing on a combined contract with the sevens set-up.

But Vakatawa was far from a finished product, and struggled to provide impact in a team that had serious problems inside him. Jacques Brunel’s installation as head coach rather saw Vakatawa cast aside, and, in many ways, forgotten about as other wings were injected and quickly discared.

Vakatawa went away and reinvented himself as a centre in a Racing 92 shirt, playing in a side that suited him to a T, with commitment to fast, offloading, open rugby. 18 months ago his mother died shortly after Vakatawa promised to win back his place in the French side – at her funeral, he laid a France jersey on her coffin. Sure enough, courtesy of a fine season alongside Finn Russell and co on the outskirts of Paris and an untimely injury to Geoffrey Doumayrou, Vakatawa kept his promise.

With Brunel jettisoning Mathieu Bastareaud out of the team to seek greater potency and flair in that 13 berth, Vakatawa got his chance, and took it, dovetailing beautifully with the similarly effervescent Gael Fickou in midfield. He is the perfect outside centre for a team now committed to that open style, and this was a game that showed that.

Virimi Vakatawa was superb for France

Vakatawa was integral to the first two tries, making the half-break that set up the fabulous second score, and then scored the third as France took a nine point advantage into half-time.

3.Wales show their fight to stay in it

Wales may have been down by nine points at half-time, but they backed themselves. That is partly due to the Six Nations meeting between the pair earlier in the year – it was a sixteen point half-time lead on that occasion, and Wales overturned it to begin their run to the Grand Slam.

Here, Aaron Wainwright’s opportunistic score kept them alive, and Dan Biggar’s boot allowed them to stay within striking distance.

France simply do not have the final quarter fitness and clarity of thought that Wales do, partly due to the fact that their domestic league does not demand the same levels of fitness of the other big leagues. There, stars are often able to take games off, rotated out, or play fewer minutes, and games tend to devolve into attritional affairs at the death. France consistently under-perform in the second half and final 20, not managing to add even a point to their half-time total here, and they tend to make silly errors, too…

4. Sebastien Vahaamahina costs France…again!

Recall that come-from-behind Welsh victory, and you might just remember a scrum-capped second row trying to hurl a 30-yard pass over the head of George North. It did not work: North intercepted, juggled, and raced away to score the match-winning try.

Here, Sebastien Vahaamahina cost his side again. This was an ever greater act of stupidity, tussling with Aaron Wainwright in a maul and then, for reasons known only to the giant second row, decided to throw his elbow into the face of the Welsh back-rower.

It was not a tough decision for the officiating team – red cards seldom come more clear. France were down to 14 men, and an ideal opportunity to progress to the semi-final slipped through their grasp.

5. Wales strike at the death

Moriarty snatched victory at the death for Wales

Fair play to France. Few sides would have been able to hold on for the length of time they did with 14. Showing unusual organisation and desperation in defence, it seemed for a while like they might just manage to hold out for a famous World Cup victory.

But they could not. Ross Moriarty wriggled his way over after the ball was ripped free from French hands at the back of a retreating French scrum, and Wales had the try, and the win. South Africa or Japan await, and while Wales will have to be much better, they have every chance of reaching a World Cup final for the first time.

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