We look at the major talking points after Wales left it late to see off 14-man France and seal a Rugby World Cup semi-final place with a 20-19 victory in Oita.
France scored first-half tries through Sebastien Vahaamahina, Charles Ollivon and Virimi Vakatawa, but lost Vahaamahina to a second-half red card after a crass elbow to the head of Wales’ Aaron Wainwright, allowing Warren Gatland’s side back into the Test and to claim it with time running out.
Here is what stood out after a eventful Sunday on Japan’s south Island…
Vahaamahina’s mad moment
Only one place to start. This Rugby World Cup quarter-final Test turned on the actions of one man. In fact, it turned on the movement of one man’s elbow.
France, for nearly 50 minutes, were stunning. They were winning the collisions in contact, dominating in the tackle, producing penetrating offloads and beating Welsh defenders at will.
They scored three tries; they should have been out of sight. The half-time stats made for utterly dominant reading: 91 carries to Wales’ 44, a monstrous 334 metres made to Wales’ 134, some 26 gain-line successes and 12 offloads.
When tails are up and confidence is high, almost any France side in rugby history is difficult to contain. But when it is one which possesses the sort of quality this one does, it is nigh on impossible to quell them. They were carving and slicing through Wales continually, and doing so with some spellbinding rugby.
Five minutes from the end of the half, France butchered a huge opening. Having got to within metres of the try-line via Vakatawa with Wales down to 14 (Ross Moriarty was in the sin-bin), Les Bleus’ gorgeous free-flowing play turned a bit rushed at the crucial moment as Romain Ntamack and Maxime Medard perhaps threw offloads they should not have, seeing the ball turned over.
Even still there was time for Ntamack and Gael Fickou to combine for a menacing break down the left, producing a penalty which skipper Guilhem Guirado and co decided to kick. Ntamack hit the post, and in a match as tight as the final scoreline indicates, absolutely every missed chance mattered.
A nine point half-time lead, while healthy, seemed paltry in the circumstances.
There was no stopping the men in blue, however, who began the second period on top also. Turning down a potential shot at goal for a kick to the corner was yet another signal of their confidence in the moment.
It is here where everything changed. A full compliment at the five-metre lineout was added to by backs Damian Penaud, Fickou and Medard to create a well set maul which was edging forward.
Scrum-half Antoine Dupont had hands on the ball and looked set to dart at any moment – indeed he did so and over the try-line eventually, but after the referee’s whistle. Referee Jaco Peyper initially indicated a penalty due to a hold of the neck by “France five”, having received communication from one of his assistants.
The key action from the No 5, Vahaamahina, actually occurs on 47:25, but play resumes when Biggar kicks the penalty to touch. It is not until the incident is replayed on the big screens almost a minute later, in full glare of the thousands watching – and referee Peyper – that it is referred upstairs.
The pictures show Vahaamahina having grabbed Wainwright around the neck, the Welshman remonstrating to the referee in response, and then presumably in a fit of frustration at Wainwright’s appeals and in wild ignorance to the fact he would never be able get away with such an act, Vahaamahina savagely thrusts back a vicious elbow into the side of an unsuspecting Wainwright’s head.
It takes just one look after a formal TMO review for Peyper to state “red” to both assistants. The first sending off in a World Cup knockout game since 2011, and surely the easiest of them all.
In a stroke of coincidence, that 2011 decision was also from a Test between these two nations: Sam Warburton’s infamous semi-final red card. But this in Oita, was arguably worse.
Back in 2011, though Wales were hot favourites, the game was at an earlier stage and still very tight. On Sunday, the Test was all but over before Vahaamahina’s reckless intervention.
It was a point of discussion during half-time as to whether France’s inability to score more points when on top or have a larger lead would come back to harm them. It did, though nobody expected it to have emanated from such a careless act of self-induced harm.
Lucky, lucky Wales
Not only should Warren Gatland’s side have been blown completely out of the semi-final by half-time, they very nearly exited anyway, despite facing 14 for 32 minutes.
Wales were sloppy, lethargic and got sucked into a loose contest the like of which they were never going to succeed in. The red card changed all that, but even still Wales failed to perform.
Despite control of the match falling into their laps through no desirable play of their own, Wales continued to kick aimlessly and loosely, to knock-on the ball in threatening positions and to give away cheap turnovers.
They muddled through 10 minutes after the red card by scoring one penalty but constructing next to nothing after. With 15 minutes to go, Wales then made a mess of a chance that looked more difficult to garner zero points from than to convert as George North failed to get a pass away to a four-man overload – a seemingly certain try evaporated.
Even in the seconds before Ross Moriarty notched the vital try, Wales conspired to pass up golden territory with replacement tighthead prop Dillon Lewis knocking-on while on the deck in the shadow of the posts.
The lack of ruthlessness, of a clinical nature, of a winning mentality was baffling from Wales. Blood was there to be smelt, but they turned their noses away, unable to take advantage.
The players themselves will know they were incredibly fortunate to claim victory in Oita. They should be applauded for never giving up or losing hope, but plaudits should be cut at that.
It was as bad a performance as Wales have put in for two years. Do so again next Sunday against South Africa in their World Cup semi-final, and they will most certainly be out.
For many, such a result will be yet another example of French self-combustion, of their thoroughly inconsistent nature on the sporting field.
Indeed, it is only nine months or so ago that they let a 16-0 half-time lead in Paris slip away against this Wales outfit, having then been cruising and cutting open Gatland’s charges freely.
Back then, France did implode courtesy of monumental individual errors from Yoann Huget and Vahaamahina (remember him?) gifting two tries to Wales wing North.
On Sunday, aside from one ludicrous moment of rank self-abandonment from a single individual – the like of which can never be legislated for by anyone – France showed fight to dig in and nearly pull off a remarkable victory.
This was not another example of France downing tools, of arrogance superseding effort or will. It was not ego coming before industry and hard work.
Les Bleus gave everything and were still creating chances when down to 14. Just before the hour mark, a Vakatawa outside break and attempted offload just failed to come off for Penaud. With 10 minutes of the Test remaining, France had Wales where they wanted them with a five-metre scrum under the Welsh posts, but just lost control at the back of their seven-man drive – the ball agonisingly squirming through Dupont’s legs and into Wales clutches.
This night and this result will be exceptionally hard for these France players to get over. It is, without question, one that got away. And one, that really, should never have been allowed to.
They will not feel it now, or for some time, but this France team is building something. Its core of talented youthful backs, and powerful forwards are doused with potential.
Wing Penaud verged on the unplayable, slaloming through Welsh shirts, offloading perfectly out of contact, creating tries, claiming aerial balls, engendering clean breaks. His performance was a real takeaway.
Fickou’s ability to break the gain-line, dominate his would-be tackler and combine it with his offloading ability have marked him out in Japan too – he has been one of the performers of the tournament.