AUCKLAND, NZ – In one of the saddest games in Rugby World Cup history, a superb and bravely fighting Wales lost to a passive and disoriented France 9-8, at the first semifinals of the Rugby World Cup, in front of 58,629 fans at Eden Park, and even more, 61543 fans watching on big screen at Cardiff’s Millennium Stadium.
Rain started to pour just minutes before kickoff, and while it subsided, it left wet, slippery conditions. This might have been part of the “guardian angel”’s plot, as French head coach Marc Lievremont jokingly cited that a guardian angel must be the reason for his erratic and struggling team’s success at the tournament.
“We had a narrow escape and we are alive and kicking. We did not play the most spectacular game but we are still here. We know we are privileged.” – Lievremont said. – “We have qualified for the final and that is all that counts.”
France’s good luck continued as not only Welsh veteran prop Adam Jones was lost to the game with a calf injury in the tenth minute, but the real Welsh tragedy happened in the 18th minute, when Welsh captain and openside flanker Sam Warburton was sent off with a red card for a dangerous tackle. Irish referee Alain Rolland ruled that Warburton, the youngest RWC captain at age 23, tip tackled France winger Vincent Clerc, lifting him in the air and driving him to the ground head first.
“Obviously I’m gutted with the red card but there was nothing malicious.” – said Warburton. – “”It felt that as soon as I hit him his body weight took control of what happened. I went to compete for the ball, thinking it was a normal tackle. The next thing I know I’m walking off into the stands. All the boys are gutted with the result but I thought the courage and bravery they showed was second to none.”
Wales was forced to play with fourteen players for the remaining 61 minutes, but still managed to put pressure on France, who only scored three penalty kicks placed by fly-half Morgan Parra in the 22nd, 35th and 51st minutes against Welsh flyhalf James Hook’s one in the eighth.
While Wales managed to put pressure on France even from one man behind, both Hook and his 46th-minute replacement Stephen Jones struggled with kicking, Hook missed a penalty kick in the 30th and a drop goal in the 38th, Jones missing a drop goal in the 60th. Parra missing a drop goal for Les Blues in the 42th minute.
In the 58th minute, Phillips broke away from a ruck and passed through French defense to score the game’s only try, as the crowd went wild cheering for Wales. Jones missed the conversion, and that sealed the fate of the Welsh team.
“After the red card, we adopted the wrong plan. We were suffering under the Welsh pressure.” – said French centre Vincent Clerc.- “We did not do anything in attack and we lost a lot of balls. Fortunately, our defense was pretty remarkable. We managed to stay disciplined and that also saved us. I was never that scared on a field.”
Five minutes before full time, French prop Nicolas Mas entered a ruck from the side, that earned Wales a penalty kick, that could have been the most heroic victory in Rugby World Cup history, but fullback Leigh Halfpenny landed the ball just one meter short of target, sending the undeserving French to the finals to face Australia or hosts New Zealand on 23 October at Eden Park.
“The boys are just knackered.” – said Welsh lock Luke Charteris. – “It’s tough playing international rugby with 15 players. With 14, it’s one of the hardest things you can do.”
Thanks to Zilia Zara-Papa.