By the slenderest of margins Wales gained their semi-final place next Sunday with a mix of tenacity and downright sheer doggedness. And luck. It was scary stuff and as Warren Gatland truthfully put it afterwards, “the better team lost.”
France were in the ascendancy for most of the first half and looked threatening every time they had the ball in hand. But a red card for lock forward Sebastien Vahaamahina changed the dynamics of the second half. Yet, even down to 14 men, France were very far from a push-over.
After England’s authoritative win against Australia and New Zealand’s total demolition job on Ireland the scene had of course been set for another dramatic act in the World Cup quarter finals. A late blow for Wales was Jonathan Davies’ late withdrawal because of his lingering knee injury.
The first half got under way with France showing great positivity but solid defensive play from North, Tipuric and Biggar absorbed early French pressure on the line, but then the colossal Sebastien Vahaamahina crashed through for a try. Romain Ntmack’s conversion glanced off the posts.
Two minutes later smart play by Ntamack and Dupont set up flanker Charles Ollivan who cantered over the line for a try, the second in eight minutes.
Fortuitously Aaron Wainwright earned the right to reply when he found an empty field in front of him as he picked up untidy ball for a try. Biggar duly slotted through the uprights.
Wales frustrated the French after a line out, Alun Wyn Jones marshalling a maul as he so often does with seeming gusto. Jake Ball had some punching runs with Navidi never far away. A Welsh penalty for a high tackle by Vahaamahina was successfully kicked by fly half Biggar, who was slowly stamping his authority on the game’s flow and direction. But still much of the flow was of blue shirts, with the French back line proving pretty mercurial at times.
Some punt gun kicking from both sides then saw Parkes and North chasing a ball grounded behind the try line by fly half Ntamack. The Welsh defensive line stood strong.
Moriarty replaced workhorse Navidi who walked off after a hamstring injury but after just 90 seconds on the pitch he put in a dangerous tackle on Fickou which resulted in a yellow card.
Vakatawa capitalised on the gap in the defensive line, racing through and shrugging off two men for a cracking converted try.
Desperate Welsh defending staved off successive blue flows for the line. A French penalty bouncing off the uprights came as some relief to a Welsh team under the cosh.
Half-time Wales 10 France 19.
The second half got under way and soon Liam Williams was chasing his own kick, superbly setting up sniping runs by Gareth Davies and Jake Ball charging ever onwards. A French drop goal attempt proved lopsided. A French line out 5 metres out ramped up the pressure again leading to another blue put in. Then everything changed. A red card for try scorer Vahaamahina for elbowing Wainwright in the face was just reward for a stupidly aggressive action.
A Welsh driving maul was counter-rucked by France. Alun Wyn Jones carried brilliantly, helping Wales pulse forward. A successful Biggar penalty helped settle nerves and see Wales trailing by a more manageable six points.
In the next passage of play there were moments of Welsh skill and strength. Liam Williams ran like a spinning top. Alun Wyn Jones played like two men, sometimes three.
North’s pass being wrapped up by Huget was an important turn-over for France, giving them a penalty. It was taking Wales a lot of time to get any points despite their one man advantage. Things were simply strenuous out there.
A great rip by the Blues’ Tomos Williams fed to Tipuric then allowed Moriarty to muscle over the line turning him into both last minute rescuer and hero of the hour. It more than made up for his sin-binning earlier. The TMO had a damn good look at it and ruled it through. Biggar nonchalantly added two points.
Lopez’s clearance went much too far, over the dead ball line with a resulting scrum on the half way line where Wales were in no hurry whatsoever to put the ball in.
Wales continued to slow things down for the final minutes, much as France had done for the final twenty. Biggar punted towards the corner following a penalty against the French for collapsing the scrum. Elliott Dee, who had just replaced Ken ‘The Sheriff’ Owens, claimed the ball and after a few more dogged Welsh drives Biggar aimed for the stadium roof with the final kick of the match. Aaron Wainwright deservedly won the man of the match title.
Gatland’s team now progress to the semis to meet either Japan or South Africa. Either would be a tantalising prospect but many Welsh fans might be somewhat conflicted if Japan, the out-and-out stars of this World Cup lined up against them, as fans all over the world have thrilled to their high octane style and verve.
Wales know they can beat the Springboks. They have an easier path to the cup final than England who will see their white shirts matched against the All Blacks next weekend. It’s a cliche to say that a prospect is tantalising, but it is just that. As is the fact that Wales now have everything to play for. And have what it takes.