When Tonga beat this French team in the final group match of Pool A, few would have believed that the Tricolours would make it much further in the tournament, let alone their third RWC final. STYLI CHARALAMBOUS reviews the drama of the first semi-final at Eden Park, Auckland.
The 9-8 victory over the Welsh Dragons was a nail-biting affair. RWC 2011 New Zealand has had its fair share of drama, and this encounter was no exception. While the quality of rugby in this match won’t be recounted by future generations, several tipping-point incidents ensured there were more twists and turns than an amusement park rollercoaster.
The Welsh team were dominant in the opening phases of the match enjoying most of the territory and possession, and opened the scoring with an 8th min penalty by stand-in flyhalf James Hook. The first crucial moment of the match came as early as the 18th minute, when young Welsh captain Sam Warburton, suffered a rush of blood to the head that changed the complexion, and outcome of this match and the World Cup.
Defending the gain line from an attacking French lineout, Warburton performed an illegal “spear tackle” on winger Vincent Clerc, that saw referee Alain Rolland rightly show the inspirational flanker a red card without a moment of hesitation. Wales were now without a player, a captain, a fetcher and their talisman. In a cruel twist of fate, this was the second time a Welshman was sent-off in a World Cup semi-final and the second time they would lose out on a place in the final. Lock Huw Richards made history back in 1987 by becoming the first player to be red carded in the World Cup for punching a Kiwi opponent.
Photo: Wales' Mike Phillips scores a try during their Rugby World Cup semi-final match against France at Eden Park in Auckland October 15, 2011. REUTERS/David Gray
From the moment Warburton exited stage left, the French scrum stepped up a gear to win a few penalties off the weakened Welsh scrum that saw inside centre Jamie Roberts pack down on the side of the scrum in Warburton’s absence. Within three minutes of the sending off, France were awarded a penalty from a scrum infringement that saw flyhalf Morgan Parra equal matters at 3-3. An event carbon-copied 13 minutes later allowed Parra to put France ahead for the first time at 6-3 with another neatly taken penalty.
Although Wales would never give up the fight, the French allowed their opponents to stay in the match by playing ultra-conservative rugby. With the most influential centre of the tournament, now being forced into makeshift flanker role, it was a perfect opportunity for the French backline to attack the channel that was previously impenetrable on Roberts’ watch. Instead the French seemed intent to scrum their way to penalties and reverted to a kicking for territory approach that never yielded the desired results. The halftime score of 6-3 and negative French approach, would have given the men in red jerseys, hope that an unlikely victory was still on the cards.
When Parra extended the lead to 9-3 in the 51st minute, one could see the shoulders of the Welsh drop as they contemplated their options for the final half-hour against the French. But in a true moment of big match temperament, scrumhalf Mike Phillips broke to the blindside of a ruck to dummy three defending forwards in front of him and sprint over for a try that brought the Welsh back into the game and the tournament. When replacement flyhalf Stephen Jones shaved the upright, the score remained perilously close at 9-8 with 20 minutes still left on the clock.
Photo: Wales' players react after losing their Rugby World Cup semi-final match against France at Eden Park in Auckland October 15, 2011. REUTERS/Jacky Naegelen
If anyone ever doubted the influence of psychology in sport, the next 20 minutes showed how a moment of inspiration could lift dampened spirits as the Welsh out-scrummed, outplayed and out-attacked the impotent French team.
It’s often said that international sport is won by a difference of centimetres. And when Leigh Halfpenny’s 75th minute penalty from 50m out, fell agonisingly below the crossbar, Wales’ final scoring opportunity was lost. It must be said, that the miss was form of justice for yet another pathetic interpretation of the breakdown law by a referee, in full view of Rolland. The IRB referee board again have egg on their face with their best officials performing so blatantly amateurish and incompetent in a professional sport.
In the final movement of the game, Wales would hang onto possession for 25 phases before knocking on and turning over possession to the French to end the game and begin a night of celebrations. The French players themselves could hardly believe they were in World Cup final, and neither could any neutral rugby supporter, after the loss to Tonga and the much publicised in-fighting between players and management. Wales, although brave and ever-determined in defeat, will rue the red card and the two first-half penalty misses by James Hook as they now turn to the sister-kissing event that is the 3rd place play-off match.
Photo: A Wales fan reacts after the team lost their Rugby World Cup semi-final match against France at Eden Park in Auckland October 15, 2011. REUTERS/David Gray
The semi-final on Sunday, will now effectively serve as the true World Cup final of this tournament. Just as in 2007 when England somehow made it into the final, France have incredulously stumbled into the pinnacle match of international rugby. Never before has a team lost two pool matches and progressed all the way to the final, leaving supporters to scratch their heads at how a team that has played such mediocre rugby could be starting next week Sunday.
But before we all completely write-off this French team, (again) let’s remember that the only other team besides South Africa, to have beaten New Zealand at home in the last eight years, were France. While I never go near a bookie when this French team plays as every possibility of an upset remains, it would be a dark day for rugby if this very ordinary team go on to lift the Webb Ellis trophy. DM
Pen: Parra (3)
Wales: 15 Leigh Halfpenny, 14 George North, 13 Jonathan Davies, 12 Jamie Roberts, 11 Shane Williams, 10 James Hook, 9 Mike Phillips, 8 Toby Faletau, 7 Sam Warburton (capt), 6 Dan Lydiate, 5 Alun-Wyn Jones, 4 Luke Charteris, 3 Adam Jones, 2 Huw Bennett, 1 Gethin Jenkins.
Replacements: 16 Lloyd Burns, 17 Paul James, 18 Bradley Davies, 19 Ryan Jones, 20 Lloyd Williams, 21 Stephen Jones, 22 Scott Williams.
France: 15 Maxime Médard, 14 Vincent Clerc, 13 Aurélien Rougerie, 12 Maxime Mermoz, 11 Alexis Palisson, 10 Morgan Parra, 9 Dimitri Yachvili, 8 Imanol Harinordoquy, 7 Julien Bonnaire, 6 Thierry Dusautoir (capt), 5 Lionel Nallet, 4 Pascal Papé, 3 Nicolas Mas, 2 William Servat, 1 Jean-Baptiste Poux.
Replacements: 16 Dimitri Szarzewski, 17 Fabien Barcella, 18 Julien Pierre, 19 Fulgence Ouedraogo, 20 Francois Trinh-Duc, 21 Jean-Marc Doussain, 22 Cedric Heymans.
Venue: Eden Park, Auckland
Referee: Alain Rolland (Ireland)
Assistant referees: Jonathan Kaplan (South Africa), Wayne Barnes (England)
Main photo: Wales captain Sam Warburton (C) makes an illegal tackle on France's Vincent Clerc during their Rugby World Cup semi-final match at Eden Park in Auckland October 15, 2011. Warburton was sent off for the tackle. REUTERS/David Gray