France survive 14-man Welsh onslaught
Brenden Nel
October 15, 2011
France overcame a massive fightback from a 14-man Welsh side to book their ticket to the Rugby World Cup final after a controversial 9-8 win at Eden Park in Auckland on Saturday.

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But it was a far from convincing performance by the French, who simply refused to play any rugby in the match and instead relied on their strong defence and Welsh mistakes to take the victory.

Yet the game will forever be remembered for a crucial and critical call by referee Alain Rolland in red carding Welsh captain Sam Warburton in the 18th minute for a tip-tackle, a decision which is set to be debated across the world for weeks to come.

It is unfortunate once again that the referees are in the spotlight once again, but Warburton should have known better when he lifted French winger Vincent Clerc, tipped him and dropped him on his shoulders and head.

While the tackle was probably not intended, and Warburton did let Clerc go at the last second rather than bore him into the ground, it was always going to be a card. A yellow may have been more appropriate, especially so early in the game, but it must be remembered the International Rugby Board adopted a zero tolerance approach to tip tackles some time ago, with referees being urged to start at Red and work their way down with mitigating circumstances.

Wales may not agree, but referee Rolland found none. He dispatched a stunned Warburton to the side of the field before the crowd even fathomed what had gone on. In one second Warburton had gone from the most inspirational player of the tournament, to a villain that was ordered off the field.

Despite this the Welsh were by far the superior side on attack, looking for ball and hunting for opportunities even though they were down to 14 men. It would be easy to blame the red card, but considering the amount of ball the Welsh got in the game, they would probably feel unlucky they had not taken the lead at some point with some better options.

With the entire arsenal that coach Warren Gatland had at his disposal, losing Warburton was not their only flaw in the Welsh armour. Poor kicking, both tactically and at the posts is what cost this Welsh team victory, especially on a night where they fought for every inch of ground.

Losing Rhys Priestland before the game turned out to be a massive blow for the Welsh, and they missed 11 points through kicks, and flyhalf James Hook had a poor day, succumbing under the pressure he was put under by the French forwards.

The French had their opportunities, but shunned running the ball in favour of a kicking contest, seemingly not interested in trying to take on the Welsh defence. It wasn’t pretty, and at times the contest remained rather boorish, but the French simply endured they got the points when they came and kept up the pressure.

Wales were brave throughout, especially considering what losing their openside flanker could have meant in a big game like this, but despite the heroics of Mike Phillips, Jamie Roberts, George North and Toby Faletau they were limited in everything they tried.

Hook may have opened with a penalty to give them the lead, but slowly as they struggled to compete a man down, Morgan Parra simply stepped up and claimed the points as they came.

At 9-3 the French looked like they were winning the battle, strangling Wales into a slow and uncomfortable death. But then Phillips broke through Pascal Pape’s tackle around the fringes, and found an open trying waiting for him.

It gave more than hope, and sent the Welsh into frenzy in the stands. Despite all the hardship and deprivation, they still had a chance.

But then Stephen Jones, who had made his appearance on the field shortly before to replace Hook, stepped up and couldn’t make the conversion, even though it was a regulation one at best. It left the Welsh desperately short, a point adrift of the French but still determined to grab the victory.

They pounded away at the French, who held firm but eventually the penalty came. With five minutes to go, Leigh Halfpenny stepped up with the weight of Welsh hopes on his shoulders, and gave it his all from 50 metres out. The ball sailed good and true, but just dipped under the crossbar to continue the Welsh agony.

The clock ticked down and the time started running out. Wales set themselves for the dropgoal, taking the ball up time and again. But this time the French resistance was solid. Sensing the win, the French forwards were giants in defence, pushing the Welsh back.

Stephen Jones set himself in the pocket for the dropgoal, but he was too far out. Fifteen phases became twenty. Twenty became twenty five and after 29 phases Roberts dropped the ball, bringing a French sigh of relief and rapture as Dimitri Yachvili booted the ball into touch.

France will hardly say they were deserved winners on the night, but being French, they will hardly care. They are in the final, one half of a repeat of the 1987 final when they met New Zealand 24 years back.

In 24 hours the Welsh will have digested their shock of a brave 80 minutes, and in 24 hours we will all know if the All Blacks or Australia are in the final.

For now, the French will be the only ones happy in Auckland tonight.

- Try: Mike Phillips. Penalty: James Hook.
France - Penalties: Morgan Parra (3).

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