By Sarah Mockford, Rugby World Features Editor at Eden Park
SO CLOSE, but yet so far. Wales could and, more importantly, should be playing in a World Cup final next Sunday, despite the fact that they played three quarters of this match with 14 men. Instead, they missed out by an agonising point against a desperately poor French team and have to make do with the third-place play-off.
As Wales coach Warren Gatland said afterwards, the courage and bravery his team showed to remain so competitive in this match when at such an obvious disadvantage is something to be immensely proud of – but the fact remains that they were the better team and had the opportunities to win this match.
Let’s look at the main talking points.
1. THE RED CARD
It’s the 17th minute, Sam Warburton tackles Vincent Clerc, lifts him in the air and then lets go. Probably not the best move and it wasn’t a good tackle, but there was no intent or maliciousness to it, and he didn’t drive his head into the ground like a spear tackle, so a yellow card would have sufficed in my opinion. Instead Alain Rolland issued a straight red. At the very least I’d have preferred him to consult with the assistant referees rather than making such a rushed decision, particularly so early on in a game as big as a RWC semi-final.
Wales missed three penalties and a conversion, not to mention a couple of wayward drop-goal attempts, and given the minor margin of victory for France they should be kicking themselves (sorry, couldn’t help the pun!). Had Stephen Jones converted Mike Phillips’s try I doubt France would have come back – they offered nothing in attack and had come with a plan to solely capitalise on Welsh mistakes. More accuracy with the boot and they’d be playing for the Webb Ellis Cup.
At times in this match I was transported back to France 2007 given the almost endless up-and-unders sent skyward by both teams. I know Wales’ kick-chase game is very good, but once down to 14 men they should have been playing for territory and kicking for the corners. It was not until the last quarter that Stephen Jones put in some raking kicks – one of which resulted in Mike Phillips’s try – and had they started playing for field position earlier who knows what might have happened.
Yes, the red card cost Wales, but what is more disappointing is that they still should have won this match; they had the chance and the skills to overcome this French side but didn’t take them – and that is what will be more painful for the players. A proud and courageous performance it was, but also a huge missed opportunity.
So can they recover to snatch third place in Friday’s play-off? And will be Warburton be free to play in that game? Big questions for Wales this week.