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Brave Wales knocked out by France

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AUCKLAND, NEW ZEALAND - OCTOBER 15:  Scrumhalf Mike Phillips of Wales charges towards Maxime Mermoz #12 of France during semi final one of the 2011 IRB Rugby World Cup between Wales and France at Eden Park on October 15, 2011 in Auckland, New Zealand.  (Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images)

AUCKLAND, NEW ZEALAND - OCTOBER 15: Scrumhalf Mike Phillips of Wales charges towards Maxime Mermoz #12 of France during semi final one of the 2011 IRB Rugby World Cup between Wales and France at Eden Park on October 15, 2011 in Auckland, New Zealand. (Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images)

Stu Forster

AUCKLAND, NEW ZEALAND - OCTOBER 15:  Wales captain Sam Warburton (L) is consoled by teammate Jamie Roberts following their team's 9-8 defeat during semi final one of the 2011 IRB Rugby World Cup between Wales and France at Eden Park on October 15, 2011 in Auckland, New Zealand.  (Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images)

AUCKLAND, NEW ZEALAND - OCTOBER 15: Wales captain Sam Warburton (L) is consoled by teammate Jamie Roberts following their team's 9-8 defeat during semi final one of the 2011 IRB Rugby World Cup between Wales and France at Eden Park on October 15, 2011 in Auckland, New Zealand. (Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images)

Stu Forster

AUCKLAND, NEW ZEALAND - OCTOBER 15:  Toby Faletau of Wales (C) attempts to penetrate the France defense during semi final one of the 2011 IRB Rugby World Cup between Wales and France at Eden Park on October 15, 2011 in Auckland, New Zealand.  (Photo by Mike Hewitt/Getty Images)

AUCKLAND, NEW ZEALAND - OCTOBER 15: Toby Faletau of Wales (C) attempts to penetrate the France defense during semi final one of the 2011 IRB Rugby World Cup between Wales and France at Eden Park on October 15, 2011 in Auckland, New Zealand. (Photo by Mike Hewitt/Getty Images)

Mike Hewitt

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AUCKLAND, NEW ZEALAND - OCTOBER 15: Scrumhalf Mike Phillips of Wales charges towards Maxime Mermoz #12 of France during semi final one of the 2011 IRB Rugby World Cup between Wales and France at Eden Park on October 15, 2011 in Auckland, New Zealand. (Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images)

France 9 Wales 8: Heroic Wales - a team that dared to dream at this wonderful World Cup - saw their hopes of achieving rugby immortality shattered in the cruellest possible fashion at Eden Park.





It had to be a case of cool Cymru prevailing in the heat of battle against semi-final opponents France, and they so nearly achieved mission improbable.

Captain Sam Warburton was sent off inside the opening quarter - just eight minutes after powerhouse prop Adam Jones departed injured - yet the game almost became one of the greatest triumphs over adversity in sporting history.



Warburton, an inspirational figure throughout the World Cup campaign, received a straight red card for a dangerous tackle on France wing Vincent Clerc.



The stunned silence that accompanied Warburton's agonising exit said it all.



By the letter of the law, Irish referee Alain Rolland was probably right, yet there was no empathy in his decision, and for more than an hour Wales played with 14 men.



Clerc was uninjured, there had been no malice in Warburton's challenge. But once the red card was brandished, Wales had to dig deeper than they ever had before.



And that they kept their margin of defeat to 9-8 was utterly remarkable.



Right to the very end they had France on the back foot after dominating territory and possession against all odds.



Centre Jamie Roberts was pressed into emergency back-row duty at scrums and the Welsh defence scrambled like men possessed, but all the while, Warburton and Jones could only look on in total despair.



Inevitably, the penalties started to mount up - Morgan Parra kicked three inside 45 minutes - as France's fifth successive World Cup semi-final appearance ultimately produced the result they coveted.



But it was sheer agony for Wales, a team that had entertained so royally at this World Cup, yet ultimately bowed out in circumstances they did not deserve.



Warrior scrum-half Mike Phillips scored an opportunist try and James Hook kicked a penalty. Wales, though, were left to rue four missed kicks - two Hook penalties, a Stephen Jones conversion attempt that hit the post and a late long-range Leigh Halfpenny strike that dipped inches under the crossbar.

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The last time Wales reached a World Cup semi-final in 1987, six of the current team - Warburton, Halfpenny, George North, Jonathan Davies, Dan Lydiate and Toby Faletau - were not born.



After that triumph in the amateur days, the Wales squad went on a permitted two-day drinking binge, which ended up being called off halfway through, such was the frivolity of that opening 24 hours.



The magnificent mantra of this Wales team is about being professional at every turn.



Twenty four years on, Warburton - the youngest skipper in World Cup history - would undoubtedly have celebrated in his favourite fashion with a bottle of water and bar of chocolate, possibly watching a James Bond movie.



But tonight, when the dust starts to settle in Auckland and Welsh fans begin drowning their sorrows, he will probably shed a tear, sparked by sheer frustration.



While England's World Cup post-mortem rumbles on against a backdrop of predictable Rugby Football Union disarray, Wales were united on and off the field, and a third place play-off against New Zealand or Australia next Friday seems such a poor reward.



But when you believe like Warburton has, like Wales coach Warren Gatland has believed and like more than 60,000 people believed at the Millennium Stadium watching on the giant screens today, Welsh rugby will remain World Cup winners.



And while the pain of defeat will be too much for many to bare - from Auckland to Anglesey and Abergavenny - they need to console themselves with one simple thought.



How good could this Wales team be in 2015 when England succeed New Zealand as host nation?



Their young players - Generation X as Welsh Rugby Union chief executive Roger Lewis calls them - will be four years older and four years wiser.



Maybe then, they will achieve the golden prize the current crop of players went so close to achieving.



Maybe then, the pain of Eden Park, Auckland, October 15, 2011, will finally have eased.

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