Wales 8-9 France, Rugby World Cup Semi-Final, October 15, 2011
Welsh complaints will fall on deaf ears
Graham Jenkins at Eden Park
October 15, 2011
Wales' Sam Warbuton sends France's Vincent Clerc crashing to the turf during their clash at Eden Park © Getty Images
Despite their admirable courage, Wales' Rugby World Cup dream faded in agonising circumstances on Saturday against a France side seemingly unworthy of a chance to play for the sport's biggest prize.
Billed as one of the game's rising stars and a hugely influential part of Wales' arsenal coming into the game, skipper Sam Warburton will hog the headlines for all the wrong reasons as a result of the red card that turned this game on its head, just as he upended France's Vincent Clerc before getting his marching orders from referee Alain Rolland.
So clear is the International Rugby Board (IRB) stance on 'dangerous tackles' that he has little reason for complaint. Determined to rid the game of one of its uglier elements, the governing body have issued repeated directives on the subject that offer little room for movement. The three options open to referees "when a tackler horizontally lifts a player off the ground" are as follows:
A. The player is lifted and then forced or 'speared" into the ground. A red card should be issued for this type of tackle
B. The lifted player is dropped to the ground from a height with no regard to the player's safety. A red card should be issued for this type of tackle.
C. For all other types of dangerous lifting tackle it may be considered a penalty or yellow card is sufficient.
While no-one is suggesting Warburton speared Clerc into the ground in a malicious attack on his relatively slight rival, there can be little doubt that the Frenchman's safety was jeopardised by the tackle even if there was no intent. The IRB are also keen to stress that "any player who puts a player in the air or caused a player to be put in the air has a responsibility to ensure that the player is brought to the ground safely". Warburton didn't and has paid the price.
Some may well point to the case of France's Fabrice Estabanez, who only saw yellow for a tip tackle during his side's defeat to Tonga, but he was subsequently suspended for three games when the judicial officer ruled that referee Steve Walsh has got that decision wrong. It appears that the law is not in question, it is the application, which is nothing new for the IRB or referees boss Paddy O'Brien. There is always a grey area on such matters and maybe a more lenient and not so hasty decision by Rolland would have resulted in a better contest but that is a dangerous road to venture down.
Warburton himself was clearly in shock as he sat on the sidelines and he will lose some sleep as reality sets in. As captain and player he has set a superb example both on and off the field throughout the last few weeks, and it is disappointing that an otherwise outstanding tournament ends on such a reckless note. His anointment as one of the game's best players may have been a little premature but rest assured the recently-turned 23-year-old will learn from this painful experience and will be an even better player for it.
Even though they were reduced to 14-men with just 17 minutes gone there was never any fear of France running away with this contest. Wales are a formidable unit and their superior fitness and France's attacking impotence ensured that they game was in the balance until the final whistle. That was largely down to the efforts of centre Jamie Roberts, No.8 Toby Faletau and scrum-half Mike Phillips, who did not take a backward step all night. On reflection, the absence of injured fly-half Rhys Priestland disrupted their flow, with neither James Hook or replacement Stephen Jones able to dictate proceedings with the former's kicking another contributing factor to their defeat.
The major positive for Wales is the reason coach Warren Gatland is already signed up to steer the side into the 2015 Rugby World Cup in England - they have time on their side. While one or two may not grace the stage again, a whole host of these players will, fitness and form allowing, be looking to go one better than this time.
It is almost unbelievable that this French side will contest the Final. A mauling at the hands of the All Blacks in the Pool stages dented their hopes and belief, and led to reports of disquiet among the players. There was further woe around the corner as Tonga inflicted a highly-embarrassing defeat and coach Marc Lievremont's relationship with the French media descended from bad to worse. Somehow they rediscovered a tiny semblance of form to account for a fragile England side in the quarter-finals.
That was it we thought, France rarely produce back-to-back performances of note, especially on the World Cup stage, and we were right. But unfortunately for Wales, a painfully uninspiring display offering conviction but little flair was just enough to see of a rival who had been stripped of the services of its talisman before he had been given a chance to work up a sweat.
At times it appeared that France did not want to win this game and were doing all they could to encourage Wales to snatch it from them. Happy to kick ball away time and time again, they refused to gamble in attack. They only held a one-point lead going into the final quarter but that was enough for them to shut down the limited creative output they had mustered to that point. And while some border on the work shy, others offer refuse to coast along with flanker Julien Bonnaire's industry a huge plus for the side.
There remains hope for France with fly-half Morgan Parra able to find time and space in a Wales defence that had offered little of either coming into this game and the boot of Dimitri Yachvili was another get-out-of-jail card played several times. But in this form you really fear for them whoever they face in the tournament finale such is the threat posed by both the All Blacks and the Wallabies - a third final defeat looks inevitable. A 'battle of the hemispheres' draw in the knock out stages but something went wrong along the way as France are not, whatever this result suggests, the best Europe has to offer.
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Graham Jenkins is the Senior Editor of ESPNscrum and you can also follow him on Twitter.