Wales gained a semblance of revenge on France as they edged home in a thrilling Rugby World Cup quarter-final, beating Les Bleus 20-19 in Oita.
Warren Gatland’s men were behind until the 75th minute following a stunning display from the French, who first showed off their free-flowing attacking rugby to storm into 12-0 and 19-10 leads, before displaying resilience and grit to defy the Dragons after Sebastien Vahaamahina’s red card.
Vahaamahina, Charles Ollivon, and the brilliant Virimi Vakatawa had scored first-half tries for the French, Aaron Wainwright replying for Wales. And only Ross Moriarty’s late score, converted by Dan Biggar, edged Wales home by a point, following Vahaamahina’s exit for an elbow on Wainwright.
It was reminiscent of the semi-final eight years ago when Wales had Sam Warburton sent off but dug in and lost out on a place in the final by a point, losing 9-8.
CAN’T DIS-CARD THE SIMILARITIES
It’s funny how the universe works. You sometimes hear in sport the phrase “you just couldn’t write it”, but there cannot have been more truth to the meaning of it than in Oita on Sunday.
On October 15, 2011, France beat Wales to reach their third World Cup final. The result came after a red card for their opponents but only following a mighty scrap and a brave, spirited fight from the 14 men. Ultimately Wales were vanquished, France victorious.
Fast forward eight years – or 2,927 days – and Wales claimed a barely believable victory over Les Bleus to reach just a third-ever World Cup semi-final. They did so after a red card for their opponents and only following a mighty scrap and a brave, spirited fight from the 14 men. This time it was the men in blue left vanquished, the men in red victorious.
The irony is not lost on either set of fans. Inside Eden Park eight years ago, Wales fans had the life sucked out of them when Alain Rolland controversially sent captain Warburton off for a tip-tackle on France wing Vincent Clerc. Wales faced the prospect of playing 61 minutes down a man. France, seemingly, had a red carpet walk into the final.
It was anything but, though. A stirring, spirited second-half display kept them in the game and Mike Phillips even crossed for the only try with 23 minutes left to set up an epic finale. But Stephen Jones’ conversion struck the upright and Leigh Halfpenny missed a long-range penalty at the death as France held on.
Back to the present; an eerily similar scenario in Oita. The main difference being there was nothing controversial about Vahaamahina’s dismissal for a violent elbow to Wainwright’s face.
France faced 32 minutes a man down and yet, even though they did not add to their 19 points, they summoned a superhuman effort and forced a litany of mistakes from Wales that looked likely to cost them dearly.
Only Biggar’s conversion of Moriarty’s try five minutes from time edged his side ahead. And even then it was a nerve-jangling five minutes before they could celebrate.
In every game on their run to the knockout stages, Wales had been in full control of proceedings. Even in the nerve-shredding 29-25 triumph over Australia in which they had to withstand one hell of a Wallabies comeback in the second half, they were always at the wheel.
But there was no captain steering this unmissable shipwreck of a game that rose and crashed like a storm at sea. You couldn’t take your eyes off it for a second.
Wales are the superior team and France have been frustrating to watch for well over a decade now. Equally capable of the beguiling as they are the bewildering. But from the moment they opened the scoring in the fifth minute this was set up to be a scrappily brilliant contest with the two prized pugilists competing blow for blow.
It was organised chaos and it suited the bohemian French flair as opposed to the more stout and resolute rugby Wales have played under Warren Gatland. The French forced Wales to play their game, which was as engaging as it was error-strewn. The duo combined for 25 turnovers and Wales missed a staggering 26 tackles.
And yet it ended in the same fashion as their Six Nations date in Paris at the start of February. France raced into a 16-0 lead before throwing it away and losing 24-19.
They imploded then and despite the credit with which they’ll rightly emerge from this contest, the frustration will be annoyingly familiar.
FROM MIDFIELD MAESTRO TO PACK MENTALITY
In the Welsh back row, an area of mammoth men, Wainwright’s impact on their run to the quarter-finals had been fairly understated prior to this. But his contribution was gigantic against the French as he earned himself the man of the match award.
Five runs, from which 64 metres were made; only Liam Williams made more. He made two clean breaks, more than any team-mate, the joint most of any player on the field in fact. He added 14 tackles on the defensive side of the ball – only Ken Owens, Alun Wyn Jones and Tomos Francis completed more. He even chipped in with his first Wales try to keep them in it early on when France threatened to run away.
Wainwright’s rise is stunning when you consider the 22-year-old is a footballer-turned rugby player who only took up rugby seriously six years ago – two years before the last World Cup.
The blindside flanker was actually a pretty good central defensive midfielder, who joined the Cardiff City academy aged seven, playing with the Bluebirds until he was 16.
While red-shirted colleagues will have grown up idolising Gareth Edwards, Neil Jenkins or Shane Williams, Wainwright’s heroes were Patrick Vieira and Claude Makelele, moulding his game on the iconic midfielders.
He even got the chance to receive coaching from Arsenal legend Vieira while he was in Wales taking his badges, when Wainwright was 14 and still dreaming of a professional career with the round ball.
Cardiff released him and he was offered a scholarship with home town Newport. But it would have meant moving schools and leaving his mates, which Wainwright didn’t want to do.
That’s when he got into rugby. And he’s since switched from protecting things in front of the back four to moving to the 15-man game and picking up the ball with his hands. Now he’s a game away from a shot at getting his hands on the Webb Ellis trophy.
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