In the lowest scoring knockout match in 20 years, fly-half Morgan Parra kicked three penalties for France at Auckland’s Eden Park last night. Scrum-half Mike Phillips scored a try and James Hook added a penalty for Wales, which had to play a man down for 62 minutes after captain Sam Warburton was red-carded for a dangerous tackle.
France, the runner-up in 1987 and 1999, rebounded from back-to-back losses to the All Blacks and Tonga in the pool stage and reports of infighting in its squad to secure a place in the Oct. 23 final. New Zealand hosts Australia today in the other semifinal at Eden Park.
“We had a guardian angel tonight,” France coach Marc Lievremont said in his post-match news conference. “We had a very narrow escape and we are alive and kicking. We did not play the most spectacular game but we are still here. We know we are privileged.”
Wales had a chance to go ahead when Phillips scampered over for the only try in the 59th minute, but Stephen Jones’s conversion attempt hit the post. Leigh Halfpenny’s penalty from halfway with five minutes left dropped a meter (3 feet) below the crossbar and was the third penalty Wales missed after Hook put two first-half kicks wide.
Wales had reached the final four for the first time since 1987, when it finished third. The fourth-ranked Welsh had won four straight games at the tournament after also losing by a point to South Africa in its opener.
Warburton’s red card cost Wales a place in its first World Cup final, coach Warren Gatland said.
‘Out of Our Hands’
“We just feel like the destiny of the result was taken out of our hands,” he said. “I’m just gutted. We were down to 14 but we showed great character and I’m proud of our efforts. I feel let down, I thought this team were good enough to go on and take the final but it was not to be.”
A pre-match downpour made early conditions slippery and the teams made five handling errors in the first 10 minutes.
Hook, recalled in place of injured fly-half Rhys Priestland, kicked an eighth-minute penalty though missed a chance to double the lead from in front of the posts when he slipped as he was about to strike the ball.
Wales went a man down when open-side flanker Warburton was sent off by referee Alain Rolland of Ireland for a tip tackle on Vincent Clerc. Warburton lifted Clerc up in the air, though he didn’t appear to drive him into the ground. Rolland showed the Wales skipper the red card instead of yellow.
“Obviously I’m gutted with the red card but there was nothing malicious,” said Warburton, who became the second Welshman to be sent off at a World Cup after lock Huw Richards in the 1987 semifinal loss to New Zealand. “I went to compete for the ball, thinking it was a normal tackle. The next thing I know I’m walking off into the stands.”
Parra tied the scores with a penalty four minutes later and Hook missed with another chance in the 30th minute. Parra was on target with another penalty 12 minutes later to give his team a 6-3 lead at the break.
Fly-half Parra, who took over the kicking duties because regular goal-kicker Dimitri Yachvili wasn’t able to kick after injuring his leg in the quarterfinal win over England, made it 9-3 before Phillips touched down.
The scrum-half picked up the ball at the base of a ruck and threw a dummy before handing off Pascal Pape and running in a solo try. Jones hit the post with the conversion to leave France a point ahead before Halfpenny’s long-range penalty fell just short. With the 80 minutes up, Wales took the ball through 26 phases before spilling the ball and Yachvili re-gathered and kicked into the stands to end the game.
“If we’d knocked a few points over it would have probably have been the most heroic victory in history of the Rugby World Cup,” said Wales assistant coach Shaun Edwards. “Unfortunately we came up one short.”
Top-ranked New Zealand takes a 25-match winning streak at Eden Park into today’s game against two-time champion Australia, whose last victory at the venue was in 1986. The Wallabies won when the teams last met on Aug. 27 to clinch their first southern hemisphere Tri-Nations title in a decade.
Lievremont, who played in France’s defeat to Australia in the 1999 World Cup final, said he would prefer to meet the host nation at Eden Park next week in a repeat of the inaugural final 24 years ago, which New Zealand won.
“I will always be an All Blacks supporter unless we play them,” Lievremont said. “Playing the All Blacks in the final in New Zealand would be extraordinary.”
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