Wales go out in blaze of acrimony
Irish referee Alain Rolland was the target of a bitter attack by Welsh coach Warren Gatland for his controversial dismissal of captain Sam Warburton in yesterday's World Cup semi-final in Auckland.
An angry Gatland claimed Rolland got it badly wrong in sending off Warburton in the 17th minute. Whatever the truth, the Irish whistler's dramatic decision hugely influenced the outcome.
It was the second week in succession that a country went out of the Rugby World Cup because of a contentious refereeing performance.
Warburton lifted French wing Vincent Clerc in a tackle and the Frenchman crashed heavily to the ground. Rolland immediately stopped play and flourished a red card.
"The thing that surprises me is the reaction of the referee was instant," said Gatland. "I would have thought an experienced referee would have brought in his two assistants, discussed it and made a cool judgement. For an experienced referee to make such a quick decision in the semi-final of a World Cup . . . well, that decision ruined the game.
"Having looked at it, we accept Sam has lifted him. But he lets him go; he doesn't drive him into the ground. I can accept it was a yellow card for lifting but I can't accept it was red. Sam is not the type of player to do that, he is not malicious."
Warburton echoed those sentiments. "There was nothing malicious about the tackle," he said. "It was a normal tackle but the next thing was I was walking off into the stand."
Welsh defence coach Shaun Edwards said: "It was a travesty for the competition because clearly the best team will not be part of the final. But at times like this it is important to keep your dignity and not say what it warrants."
It meant that France stole a place in next Sunday's World Cup final with an abysmal performance against a brave, courageous Welsh team forced to play for over an hour with just 14 men.
What was so remarkable was that even after Warburton's departure and the equally cruel loss of injured tighthead Adam Jones after only nine minutes, Wales were still by far the best team.
They held the French to a narrow 6-3 half-time lead with penalties by Morgan Parra after 21 and 34 minutes against James Hook's seventh-minute opener for Wales.
When Parra added a third penalty nine minutes into the second half, the scene seemed set for France, with a man advantage, to take charge.
Instead, it was brave, wonderful Wales who lifted their game and shrugged off the loss of their captain and influential prop. Somehow, despite losing five lineouts and suffering humiliation at times in the set scrums, Wales clawed their way back into the game. They played all the rugby.
"It was absolutely courageous what they did and I am incredibly proud," said Gatland. "But I feel hollow."
Gatland had to admit too that his side had their chances. "Had we knocked over a few more points [they let slip 14 points from missed goal kicks], it would have been the most heroic victory in the history of the World Cup."
It was never attractive stuff but it became a compelling spectacle as the Welsh fightback gathered momentum. It was helped by France's spineless tactics of attacking only close in, around the fringes, or just kicking the ball away deep into Welsh territory. All the inspiration, all the invention and spirit came from Wales.
France were plunged into danger when Wales lifted a defensive siege, broke downfield and scored after 58 minutes. The French backline seemed well manned but scrumhalf Mike Phillips shrugged off lock Pascal Pape's tackle and stormed over.
"At that time we were a bit scared," admitted French captain Thierry Dusautoir. "But our experience helped us a lot and told us not to panic."
Dusautoir admitted he told his players they had to control the game better. "We had the feeling it was the French team playing with 14 men. We made a number of knock-ons and poor decisions."
But the all-important conversion attempt, by replacement outhalf Stephen Jones which would have put Wales back in front, stayed out. "We thought they would convert the try," said Dusautoir.
When French prop Nicolas Mas was penalised for incorrect entry into a ruck with eight minutes left, Wales had another chance of glory. But fullback Leigh Halfpenny's penalty from half-way dropped tantalisingly short of the crossbar.
Even then, France had to repel a final Welsh attack of 27 phases as they sought to engineer a drop-goal attempt for Jones to scramble home to victory. It was a shambolic performance by France. They become the first team in World Cup history to lose two matches yet still reach the final.
"I don't care at all whether it was a good match or not or whether Wales deserved to be in the final," said coach Marc Lievremont.
"We are in the final and that's all that counts. But I think we have to pay tribute to the Welsh team that played nearly the whole match with 14 men. They were amazingly brave."
And the red card? "It was quite disappointing in a semi-final that the match was unbalanced so quickly. However, it was a very dangerous tackle and deserved a red card."
Scorers -- France: Parra 3 pens Wales: Phillips try, Hook pen.
France: Médard; Clerc, Rougerie, Mermoz, Palisson; Parra, Yachvili; Poux (Barecella 44), Servat (Szarzewski 44), Mas, Papé (Pierre 60), Nallet, Dusautoir (capt), Bonnaire (Ouedraogo 75), Harinordoquy.
Wales: Halfpenny; North, J Davies, Roberts, S Williams; Hook (S Jones 45), Phillips; Jenkins, Bennett, A Jones (James 9), Charteris, AW Jones (B Davies 60), Lydiate, Warburton (capt), Faletau. Sent off: Warburton
Referee: A Rolland (Ireland)
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