France held on to reach the Rugby World Cup final yesterday with a dramatic 9-8 victory over a heroic Wales team forced to play three quarters of the game with 14 men after their captain Sam Warburton was sent off.
Flanker Warburton was shown the red card in the 18th minute for a spear tackle on France winger Vincent Clerc, offering France a gilt-edged invitation to claim a place in a third World Cup final after 1987 and 1999.
They made heavy work of it, but ultimately three penalties from the boot of flyhalf Morgan Parra and a huge defensive effort were enough to set up a final back at Eden Park next week against hosts New Zealand or Australia, who meet in the second semi-final today.
“It was a really tough game for us and we are very happy to be in the World Cup final,” France captain Thierry Dusautoir said. “Today we won thanks to our defense. We defended well ... we played with our hearts. I don’t know who will win tomorrow, but we are happy to be there next week.”
Wales, who had lock Huw Richards sent off in their only previous semi-final against New Zealand in 1987, produced a herculean effort after Warburton’s dismissal and scored the only try of the match in the 59th minute through scrumhalf Mike Phillips.
Wales will long rue replacement flyhalf Stephen Jones grazing the post with the conversion that would have given Wales the lead as well as two missed penalties from James Hook and a long-range effort from Leigh Halfpenny that came up just short.
Wales kept on attacking Francve at every opportunity, but despite going through more than 25 phases as the seconds ticked away to the end of the game, they were unable to get close enough to France posts to give Jones a kickable attempt at a drop-goal.
“I can’t be more proud of our guys after what they did out there, I feel hollow,” Wales coach Warren Gatland said. “I just thought the red card ruined the semi-final ... and ruined our chance of making the final.”
After a deluge of rain just before kickoff, flyhalf Hook opened the scoring for Wales with an eighth-minute penalty and his young back line started making inroads with some incisive and confident running.
However, the match turned 10 minutes later when Clerc came scooting around the blindside of a ruck and was sent crashing head-first into the grass by Warburton.
A yellow card and 10 minutes in the sin-bin looked inevitable, but stunned silence turned to boos when Irish referee Alain Rolland showed the Welshman the red.
“I’m gutted with the red card,” said an ashen-faced Warburton, who was reduced to tears as he applauded the Wales fans after the game. “There was nothing malicious in the tackle.”
Four minutes later, the Wales pack gave up a penalty at the scrum and Parra stepped up to put the French on level terms. He added another five minutes from the break to send his side into halftime 6-3 ahead.
His third penalty came 11 minutes into the second half and the match looked lost for Wales until Phillips came storming down the blindside of a ruck and through the tackle of French lock Pascal Pape to touch down eight minutes later.
That set up a nerve-tingling final 20 minutes, but ultimately the biggest day in Wales rugby history and their hopes of reaching a first World Cup final ended in disappointment for their many supporters at Eden Park and the many more packed into Millennium Stadium in Cardiff.
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