Wales took the lead after 7 minutes as flyhalf James Hook kicked a difficult penalty from near the sideline. 3-0 to the Welsh but they quickly suffered their first blow of the night, as experienced tight-head prop Adam Jones suffered a calf injury and was forced off just ten minutes into perhaps the most important game of his career. The Welsh scrum struggled throughout the game after his departure. The Welsh side continued to attack though, and looked likely with a couple of early breaks to centre Jamie Roberts and teenage wing George North. Then came the moment that changed the match.
In the 18th minute, during a set move by the French from a lineout, Welsh openside flanker Sam Warburton tackled French winger Vincent Clerc in centre-field. It was a one-on-one tackle and Warburton clearly lifted Clerc’s legs high. Clerc’s upper body twisted toward the ground and he fell heavily on his shoulders and head. Referee Alain Rolland was only metres away and had no hesitation in backing away and reaching for his cards. As the Eden Park crowd realised that Warburton had seen a red and been dismissed for the remaining 60 minutes of the match, there was plenty of booing and jeering.
This was the single most critical moment of the match and so it bears some more analysis. Law 10.4(j) reads: “Lifting a player from the ground and dropping or driving that player into the ground whilst that player’s feet are still off the ground such that the player’s head and/or upper body come into contact with the ground is dangerous play”. There is little doubt that the tackle was foul play according to the laws of the game.
The question then is whether a penalty, a yellow card or a red card would have been appropriate. According to an IRB press statement this morning, a directive first issued in 2009 states that: “[If] The lifted player is dropped to the ground from a height with no regard to the player’s safety ([then it is a] red card offence)”. This certainly was the case with Warburton’s tackle, but it could be said of many tackles in rugby.
Other examples during this World Cup are a tackle made by Fijian Dominiko Waqaniburotu on Patrick Lambie during their match against the Springboks; and one by Argentinian winger Gonzalo Camacho on Englishman Ben Foden. In both cases the only result during play was a penalty, although in Waqaniburotu’s case he was also banned for three matches by the citing committee after the match. In the France – Tonga pool match, both French centre Fabrice Estebanez and Tongan Sukanaialu Hufanga were yellow carded and then cited and banned for tip tackles. There have been no other red cards issued for tackles during this Rugby World Cup.
There is no doubt that the red card award changed the course of this match. On 21 minutes the French equalised through Parra’s boot, 3-3. On 30 minutes James Hook had a chance to push the Welsh ahead again, but slipped as he kicked the ball and missed the penalty. Morgan Parra did not miss on 34 minutes and the French went into half time with a 6-3 lead.
In the second half France put plenty of pressure on Wales through strong defence and by disrupting their lineout; Wales lost 6 of 19 on their own throw and nearly all in the second half. The French stretched their lead to 9-3 on 50 minutes and the Welsh looked as though they were beginning to lose hope. But on the 58th minute Welsh scrumhalf Mike Phillips provided a little bit of magic to bring the crowd and the team to life. From a ruck he made a break and fended off French lock Pascal Pape, to score near the corner. Replacement scrum-half Stephen Jones missed the crucial conversion, and Wales were only one point behind with twenty minutes to go.
Enlivened, Wales attacked again, but Jones missed a drop goal attempt and they couldn’t find many gaps in the desperate French defence. With four minutes to go Wales won a penalty on the halfway but Leigh Halfpenny didn’t quite get the distance on his attempt at goal. The French were content to wind down the clock however they could and in the end their defence won the day.
The Welsh impressed with their fire, and fitness in playing a man short for an hour of international rugby. They have been feted for their discipline, but in the end it was one moment of carelessness from their leader that cost them and perhaps made the difference in the result of this game. For the French part, they looked content to do just enough to win; but their lineout and scrum piled plenty of pressure on the Welsh, and their defence in the second half was strong.
France will face the winners of the second semi-final between Australia and New Zealand, in the final at Eden Park on Sunday. Wales will take on the loser in the third place match on Friday.