France reached the World Cup final after a narrow 9-8 victory over 14 man Wales. It was another abject performance from France, while Wales produced a heroic performance in difficult circumstances.
The match’s crucial moment was the 18th minute sending off of Wales captain Sam Warburton. The 23 year old lifted Vincent Clerc off his feet and dropped the winger dangerously. The IRB has declared a no-nonsense attitude towards these tackles, but Warburton can feel slightly aggrieved not to have only received a yellow card. The Wales captain did not drive Clerc into the ground and the French winger was not injured.
Wales still almost pulled off a famous victory when Mike Phillips scored the eighth international try of his career, however. Reminiscent of last week’s try against Ireland, Phillips spotted a hole in the French defensive line and darted through to touch the ball down over the try line. Stephen Jones missed the crucial conversion, however.
Ultimately, kicking was the difference between the teams as Morgan Parra was clinical from three penalty opportunities. Wales, meanwhile, badly missed the injured Rhys Priestland. James Hook scored his first penalty but missed two makeable opportunities in the opening 40 minutes. Hook also mishit a drop goal opportunity, while Stephen Jones missed the crucial conversion. Leigh Halfpenny’s 86th minute long-distance penalty also dropped agonisingly inches under the post.
Wales had started the match positively and were the best side for the opening 18 minutes. Warren Gatland’s charges attacked wilfully and threw the ball around gamely.
A cross field kick from James Hook gave Wales momentum and moments later the Welsh won the first kickable penalty of the match in the seventh minute. The penalty was out on the left wing but Hook dispatched the opportunity with great confidence to give Wales an early 3-0 lead.
James Hook had an easier opportunity in the 12th minute, but the out-half lost his footing as he reached the ball and struck the penalty just wide.
The match began to change around the 10th minute, however, when Adam Jones was forced off with an injury. The loss of Jones coupled with Warburton’s sending off badly damaged Wales’ scrum and France dominated the set-pieces for the majority of the match.
France were able to capitalise on this weakness in the scrum within three minutes of the Warburton sending off. Wales had the put in at the scrum, but France forced the seven man pack backwards and won a penalty. Morgan Parra dispatched the penalty with aplomb to equalise for France.
Despite their man advantage, France failed to create any genuine try opportunities. The nearest Marc Lievremont’s team came was in the 25th minute when Dimitri Yachvili blocked down a James Hook clearance. France collected the ball on the five yard line and a try beckoned. The Welsh defended brilliantly, however, and France had to go wide before Wales forced a knock-on.
Wales still had their chances in the first half, but James Hook’s disappointing performance hurt them. The out-half hit another makeable penalty wide in the 30th minute after Pascal Pape was penalised for not rolling away at the tackle.
Hook tried to make up for it moments later when he delicately chipped the ball behind the French defence. Alexis Palisson reacted quickest to the danger and reached the ball before Shane Williams.
The Welsh scrum was again penalised in the 35th minute and Parra again made no mistake to give France a slender 6-3 lead. Hook had a late drop goal opportunity but his effort was poor.
After a frantic first half, Wales entered the interval with a three point deficit. Gatland’s charges had every reason to remain confident, however, as Wales had held 53 per cent of possession and 65 per cent of the territory.
Wales’ poor performances at set-pieces hurt them in the second half, however. Wales lost four of their first seven lineouts in the second period and France had a big advantage over Wales’ seven man scrum.
Despite this advantage, France were poor in the second half and could only add three points to their half-time total. The points again came from the boot of Morgan Parra. Wales collapsed a rolling maul to give the Frenchman the opportunity and he scored well from a difficult angle to give France a six point lead.
Mike Phillips’ try then changed the complexion of the match and Wales looked the more dangerous side for the closing 20 minutes.
Wales got a good opportunity five minutes from time when Nicolas Mas came in from the side. The penalty was on the halfway line so long-distance penalty taker Leigh Halfpenny took the responsibility. Halfpenny struck the ball well but the shot dropped agonisingly inches under the crossbar.
Wales continued to press and worked in up the field methodically over 26 phases, but France started to push them back. Wales knocked the ball on and the opportunity was lost. The ball was kicked out to help France into a World Cup final.
France amazingly reach a World Cup final despite losing two group matches and only playing well for 40 minutes of the tournament. Lievremont will be hoping his charges can reproduce the first half performance in the England match against New Zealand or Australia in the final.