Even the sun glinting off Auckland Harbour could not dispel the morning-after feeling – not just for Wales’s sore-headed supporters but for rugby union itself. How often has the sport contrived to make a pig’s hearing-aid out of a heaven-sent opportunity, as happened on Saturday? Whether or not you are in touch with your inner jobsworth and think Sam Warburton merited his game-defining red card, this was not a contest in which justice was ultimately served.
Those of us who instinctively felt that Warburton had been treated harshly were reminded of Usain Bolt’s disqualification at the World Athletics Championships in August. Then, as now, a split-second false move devalued what had been among the sporting year’s most eagerly awaited moments.
Sooner rather than later, nevertheless, the Welsh squad will come to two realisations. The first is that they should have made a World Cup final even after playing with only 14 players, which is not something many teams have been able to say. An ounce more composure from either of their two fly-halves, James Hook and Stephen Jones, would have made a massive difference; even France readily conceded that the fates had smiled upon them at times.
And the second? Strip away the two agonising missed kicks that led to ill-deserved single-point defeats by the Springboks and the French and no team in the world has performed consistently better than Wales in these past six weeks. That might feel irrelevant at this moment but it should be some consolation once the immediate pain subsides. Not since the 1970s have so many neutrals gazed in admiration at a Welsh team and wished their own nations could harness the talent available to them to such stirring effect. Of course heroic failure is still failure but to suggest Wales are back at square one having not reached Sunday’s final is transparently absurd.
If good teams really do learn more from their defeats than their victories, the next four years could yet prove as fun as Saturday’s experience was depressing. Warburton, Toby Faletau, Dan Lydiate, George North, Rhys Priestland, Jonathan Davies and Leigh Halfpenny are all aged 24 or under. The outstanding Jamie Roberts turned 25 only this month. Where others agonise about whether Test rugby is too tough for their little darlings, the Wales coaching team have invited their best young players to take physical and mental responsibility regardless of age. It has been enlightening to watch and proof that he who dares wins more often than not.
Not, however, on this occasion. The two fans, dressed as gendarmes, who were waving plastic baguettes in front of the coaches’ box were less of a cliche than the 80 minutes France spent wrestling with their demons in public. Had Stephen Jones’s attempted conversion not ricocheted off the left-hand post, it would have been hard to imagine the French mounting a try-scoring response. Wise heads argued that they did not have two successive good performances in them, and so it proved. Only their defence and the steady head of their fly-half, Morgan Parra, who kicked three penalties and recorded a double-digit tackle count, did them much credit.
Mike Phillips, the scorer of the game’s only try, after 59 minutes, had little doubt what the end-game will be. “France were poor and they are going to get blown away in the final,” said the scrum-half. “It is as simple as that. The French didn’t do anything constructive on the pitch. All they did was look for penalties.” The Wales head coach, Warren Gatland, more than a little pointedly, said he hoped Marc Lièvremont’s team would “play a lot more rugby” on Sunday.
We will never know what would have unfolded had the admirable Warburton stayed on. The early departure of the hugely influential tighthead prop Adam Jones also threatened Wales’s equilibrium but it was Priestland they missed most. Hook is heading off to play for Perpignan who, on this evidence, will be fearing they have made a costly mistake. Whether it was the scale of the occasion or the slippery playing surface – or both – the fly-half never looked comfortable and his fine eighth-minute penalty was by far his most authoritative contribution.
No one should underestimate Stephen Jones’s efforts for Wales over many years but he, too, shrank when it mattered. The most costly miss was not his conversion or a botched left-footed drop-goal attempt but the drop-goal opportunity he unaccountably ignored in the final quarter, with Wales controlling possession bang in front of the French sticks.
In mitigation Wales have put so much into their smartly run campaign that isolating one or two poor decisions would be unfair. Gatland now has a bronze-medal match to think about on Friday but he has established the necessary environment for future gilt-edged progress. The squad’s first game after the World Cup will be a commercially driven, opportunistic fixture against the Wallabies on 3 December but beyond that lies a Six Nations of rapidly gathering intrigue.
As coincidence would have it, Wales will open their programme against their World Cup quarter-final foes, Ireland, in Dublin on 5 February and conclude with a potential title decider against France at the Millennium Stadium on 17 March. Will the magic wear off as quickly as it arrived or will the dragon fly higher still? Assuming they can keep Gethin Jenkins and Adam Jones fit, it should be the latter. Matthew Rees, their injured hooker who had been due to lead this squad before having neck surgery, is hoping to return to club rugby on Saturday week.
The one certainty is that Warburton will now be driven on by a fierce desire for a happier outcome in 2015. England may be hosting the tournament in four years’ time but after this Wales will feel they have as realistic a chance as anyone else. While Ireland lament the gradual exodus of their golden generation and English rugby tears itself apart again the Welsh have more than enough maturing talent to soar above Saturday’s intense anticlimax.
Wales Halfpenny; North, J Davies, Roberts, Shane Williams; Hook (S Jones, 46), Phillips; Jenkins, Bennett, A Jones (James, 10), Charteris, AW Jones (B Davies, 61), Lydiate (R Jones, 56), Warburton (capt), Faletau.
Try Phillips Pen Hook.
Sent-off Warburton 19.
France Médard; Clerc, Rougerie, Mermoz, Palisson; Parra, Yachvili; Poux (Barcella, 45), Servat (Szarzewski, 45), Mas, Papé (Pierre, 61), Nallet, Dusautoir (capt), Bonnaire (Ouedraogo, 75), Harinordoquy.
Pens Parra 3.
Referee A Rolland (Ireland). Attendance 58,629.
Source: guardian.co.uk, Sunday 16 October 2011 13.00 BST