There were great expectations of Wales after they made it to the World Cup rugby semi-finals and came up against France.
Today they lost a match they should have won. The scoreline was 9-8 in favour of France. And in the process they illustrated one fundamental fact of the knockout stage of the World Cup – you also need some intelligence to win these games.
For all the playmaking it did, Wales should have gone home with a final in the bag, despite playing with 14 players for 62 of the 80 minutes. France did nothing of note, they played a waiting game and made a couple of line breaks.
But they kicked straight on the night despite getting less penalties within range; all three of Morgan Parra’s kicks bisected the uprights.
Wales were down to 14 men in the 18th minute because of their captain’s stupidity. All through the tournament, we’ve heard about what a great leader Sam Warburton is; we never heard that he is short on intelligence.
As bad enough as it was to make a tip tackle on an opposition player – winger Vincent Clerc was the French player who was up-ended – Warburton compounded his offence by carelessly dropping Clerc after he lifted him off the ground. Every high-school rugby player knows that if you lift an opposing player off his feet in the tackle, then it is your responsibility to bring the man safely back to earth.
Had Warburton made even the slightest attempt to cushion the blow for Clerc, referee Alain Rolland would probably have given him a yellow card and he would have been out of the game for 10 minutes. No referee wants to spoil a game. But in the circumstances, Rolland had no option.
Six minutes before this, Wales had lost its tighthead prop Adam Jones, a man of vast experience, due to injury. Then came Warburton’s stupid mistake. It is well to bear in mind that Wales started the game with a disadvantage because of the loss of fly-half Rhys Priestland to injury; in his place, they had to play James Hook, an erratic place-kicker and not the best man to steer a team.
Hook missed two of the three penalties he took and Stephen Jones missed a conversion after scrum-half Mike Phillips had gone over in the 59th minute to score the only try of the game. In the last quarter, fullback Leigh Halfpenny just missed kicking a 50-meter penalty, the ball dipping just before it reached the crossbar.
Even with 14 men, Wales could have pinched it as France played a lacklustre game. But Wales just refused to show any patience, hurrying a couple of drop-kicks – one by Hook, one by his replacement Stephen Jones. And they kept kicking the ball away to the French. This was a game where 14 were attempting to win a game against 15 and they kept gifting possession away. Not the most intelligent tactic to use.
Had Wales shown even a tenth of the patience they showed in the last play of the game – when they went through 26 phases before they lost the ball to France – they would have been home and dry.
But they did not deserve to win. They had it in their hands and threw it away.
The loss of Adam Jones and Warburton told in the lineouts and France’s experienced No 8 Imanol Harinordoquy pinched some half-a-dozen Welsh throws.
That apart, France did nothing of note. They defended well and waited for the 80 minutes to get over. If the French play this way next week they will meet their third defeat in a final – they lost to New Zealand in 1987 and to Australia in 1999 – no matter whom they confront.