Wales reach semi-finals with a cagey win against France

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On a tense night in Oita, Wales emerged triumphant following a bruising encounter with old foes France. After a calamitous first ten minutes, Wales gradually clawed their way back into their game before a decisive red card against Sebastien Vahaamahina proved pivotal in enabling Ross Moriarty to cross the line in the closing minutes to secure victory.

The build up to this match was dominated by memories of that fateful night in Auckland in 2011: an unfortunate red card early-on to captain Sam Warburton followed by a few missed penalty kicks resulted in Wales missing out on their first World Cup Final. Wales went into this match wanting to expunge these dark memories; however, the first ten minutes produced disconcerting flashbacks to that regrettable night.

Despite obtaining possession in France’s twenty-two immediately after kick-off, Wales soon found the imposing second-row, Sebastien Vahaamahina, whose role in this match was far from over, crossing the Welsh try line for five points. It should have been seven points was it not for Romain Ntamack missing an easy conversion, two-points that the French will now be rueing. Nonetheless, a fired-up France did not worry as just three minutes later Charles Ollivon ran over the line to score a try, which was converted, giving the French a comfortable lead.

However, quick thinking from the precocious Aaron Wainwright helped to reduce the deficit to just five points as he pounced upon a loose ball, galloped across the twenty-two and dived under the posts. With this, and three-points courtesy of Biggar’s boot, Wales seemed to have regained control. Nonetheless, Ross Moriarty, on for the injured Josh Navidi, was yellow-carded for a high tackle and France capitalised on their man advantage as the impressive Virimi Vakatawa scored a try, creating a lead of nine points.

Wales would have been relieved to enter half-time just nine points behind France. Oftentimes during the first-forty it looked as if Wales’ Six Nations heroics, winning from a sixteen-point half-time deficit, might have needed to make a reappearance.

The second-half began in the same ferocious vein as the first with Wales finding it difficult to find gaps in ‘Les Bleus’. Yet the dynamic of the match completely changed in the forty-ninth minute with the red-carding of the mercurial Vahaamahina. From what was looking like a try-scoring position, France’s number five inexplicably elbowed Wainwright in the head. This was a clear red card under the old rules, let alone under the new rules which strive so hard to protect a player’s head. Indeed, the utter stupidity of Vahaamahina’s actions were expressed by angry French fans in comments on L’Équipe’s match feed, one angrily stating ‘Nothing in the head’, and another asking ‘Zidane has a cousin?’.

France now had to defend a nine-point lead for thirty minutes with fourteen men. For large parts, they did so admirably and Wales struggled to find a route to the try line. Nevertheless, in the seventy-fifth minute, the Welsh capitalised on the creaking French scrum as Tomos Williams ripped the ball from flanker Charles Ollivon, allowing Ross Moriarty to redeem himself by scoring the decisive try of the game. This decision only came after excruciating TMO deliberation concluded the rip had not gone forward much to the relief of every Welsh fan and player.

From this point onwards, Wales never looked like losing the game, and, when the clock struck eighty, Dan Biggar kicked the ball into touch, sparking jubilant celebrations from players and fans alike as Wales reached their second World Cup Semi-Final during the Gatland era.

Do not be fooled into thinking this was a vintage Welsh performance, it was not. It was laborious, sometimes indisciplined and often frustrating; however, this should not take away from the fact that Wales won whilst not playing at their best against a French side reminiscent of some of the legendary former French sides. It is a hallmark of great teams that they can win when they do not play their best: Gatland’s is quickly developing into one of those ‘great teams’.

Therefore, Wales were eventually successful in expunging the demons present since that evening in Auckland. Indeed, it was almost a complete reversal of this encounter: whereas in 2011 Wales received a red card and left points on the field, in 2019 France received a red card and left points on the field. In 2011, France went on to the World Cup Final. Clearly, only one question remains: can Wales also go on to reach that elusive World Cup Final in 2019?

Only either Japan or South Africa will stand in their way.

Man of the Match:

Aaron Wainwright: the young flanker was monumental in this physical encounter. Not only did he score a try, tackle relentlessly and terrorise the French at the breakdown but he was also the recipient of Vahaamahina’s elbow. It is little surprise that some are already preparing a place for him in the Panthéon of Welsh Greats.