JON CARDINELLI writes that a reckless Welsh tackle proved to be the catalyst for an unlikely 9-8 World Cup semi-final win for France.
Up until the 18th minute of Saturday’s play-off at Eden Park, Sam Warburton had been one of the standouts for Wales and indeed one of the stars of the 2011 tournament. Sadly, the young Wales captain will not be remembered for his impressive displays against South Africa in the pool stages and Ireland in the quarter-final, but rather for one brainless tackle that would jettison the Dragons from the global tournament.
Wales were in firm control for much of the first quarter. While their scrum struggled against a lighter but technically superior French eight, they enjoyed the majority of possession and territory, and went to a 3-0 lead in the eighth minute thanks to the boot of James Hook.
France took a pounding at the collisions. Dimitri Yachvili floated a pass to Vincent Clerc well behind the gain line, and this proved to be the game-changing moment, as Warburton, in his enthusiasm to make the hit and possibly force the turnover, lifted Clerc beyond the horizontal and then let the winger fall to ground. Referee Alain Rolland brandished the mandatory red card, and as good as Wales had looked, they were always going to struggle to hang on for 62 minutes with only 14 men.
France used the numerical advantage to good effect at scrum time, but were woefully bad in general play. Morgan Parra had kicked them to a 6-3 lead by half-time, but it was the short-handed Wales that continued to control possession and territory. The French backs battled to field the high balls launched by the Wales halfbacks, and when they did, they often made some shocking decisions which allowed Wales to regain the pill.
It was here where Wales needed to make the best of a bad situation. Hook had done brilliantly to slot his first penalty attempt from the touchline, but proceeded to fluff two subsequent shots from midfield, as well as a drop-goal attempt. France were far too loose towards the end of the first stanza and may have scored more points had they kept it close, but Wales may also have gone to the break in the lead if they had kicked their goals.
Parra bisected the uprights in the 49th minute, but the plucky Welsh refused to lie down. They continued to pressure the French back three, and the tactical substitution of Stephen Jones had the desired effect as they played smarter and tighter. While they had wasted opportunities in the first 40, they took the first chance available to them when Mike Phillips breezed through the French defence for an important try. Tellingly, Jones missed the ensuing conversion to allow France to maintain a slender 9-8 lead.
At times the Tricolores looked like the team with the one-man disadvantage. They were guilty of being too casual in some instances, and too frantic in others. It’s the type of performance many would have expected after their strong showing against England, as they have a reputation for inconsistency. They battled to put a 14-man Wales side away, and in the end, they were the side that held on for the win.
It was always going to be too much to ask of a Wales side one man short. It would have been remembered as one of the great victories had they finished a multiphase attack at the death, but unfortunately it will go down in history as a game they lost in the 18th minute when their captain received his marching orders. Three missed penalty-attempts (Leigh Halfpenny didn’t have the distance with a 50m shot in the 76th minute) and a missed conversion, also cost them dearly.