OITA -- Wales are through to the Rugby World Cup semifinals for the third time in their history after a thrilling victory over France at Oita Stadium on Sunday evening.
It was a performance coach Warren Gatland wasn't thrilled about and one that again reflected the need for his side to improve if they are serious about reaching a first World Cup final, but the Kiwi was also proud of the fight his team showed which would eventually lead to the match-winning try with just six minutes remaining.
Sebastien Vahaamahina's red card, which was completely correct, was just one of several big moments from this match decided by just a single point.
France strike early... twice
Jacques Brunel's side started this fixture in fine style. They looked sharp in attack, forced Wales into errors in defence and genuinely looked like they had come to Oita Stadium desperate to extend their stay in Japan by another week. An impressive counter attack down the left touchline put France in a position to score and while they were denied once, Wales had no answer to the power of a rolling maul and then lock Vahaamahina forcing his way past two defenders to touch down and give his side the ideal start.
But their best was still to come. Fly-half Romain Ntamack helped put the fantastic Virimi Vakatawa -- who was the game's standout player -- into space only a few minutes later and before the No. 10 received the return pass from his Fijian-born centre. Ntamack then in turn found scrum-half Antoine Dupont who offloaded to a free-running Charles Ollivon on his right hip for a 25-metre run to the line. It was a beautifully worked try where handling and timing were in perfect sync with each other. Unfortunately, it will prove of little comfort to France on the flight home.
Wales pounce to stem the tide
Wales had largely been poor throughout the first quarter in Oita; they needed something to go their way in order for France's irresistible early momentum to be halted. And they got it through a huge hit from Jake Ball, the Welsh lock producing a bone-rattling front-on tackle that jarred the ball loose from France captain Guilhem Guirado and into the path of back-rower Aaron Wainwright. The blindside flanker was left with a 45-metre run to the line, but he showed a fine turn-of-foot to make the most of the clean air and get Wales back into the contest.
"It was a tough, physical game and France came out of the blocks well," admitted Gatland after the match.
Moriarty errs as France stay in the ascendancy
While Wainwright's try slowed France's blistering early play, Brunel's side would still go into halftime nine points to the good. And they aided in that by the yellow-carding of Wales replacement Ross Moriarty. This was the first of two correct TMO reviews as Moriarty brought down a flying Gael Fickou with a tackle that slipped up above the shoulder just as the Frenchman threatened to break clear.
Referee Jaco Peyper's decision reduced Wales to 14 men for all but the final few moments of the first half. France took advantage as Vakatawa powered his way over, showing determined leg drive in the process, after winger Damian Penaud had poked his head through the line and managed to offload. With eight minutes still to play before halftime, France had the chance to further extend their lead but they couldn't manage any further points and their nine-point advantage felt like less than they probably deserved.
"At half-time we said we've just got to score next, and we did that and stuck in the game, then obviously the red card was a significant moment," added Gatland.
Vahaamahina's moment of madness
It is almost unfathomable to think how a player, who was fully aware of the various television cameras that sit across the World Cup stadiums and the crackdown on foul play this tournament has witnessed, would still throw a disgraceful elbow into the jaw of an opposition player. Yet still Vahaamahina did just that, earning himself a nomination for the biggest bone-headed play of the tournament.
While Vahaamahina was originally only penalized for an arm around the neck of Wainwright, there was never going to be any doubt where he was headed once images of his elbow connecting with Wainwright's jaw were flashed on the big screen. From there, France's 19-10 lead was always going to be tough to defend and while they managed to repel Wales until the 74th minute, les Bleus could hold on no further. Vahaamahina's teammates have every right to be disgusted with his actions. It likely cost them a World Cup semifinal berth.
Still, France coach Jacquez Brunel wasn't too critical of Vahaamahina. He also had few qualms about the colour of the card.
"I think it was a reflex on his part, there was nothing else to say, what do you want me to say? Of course he feels bad, he's not happy with what he's done but that's part of rugby and that's how it is," Brunel said post-match, through a translator.
Redemption for Moriarty
As the clock wore down, Wales appeared to be blowing a golden opportunity to play a get-out-of-jail-free card. But yet another stupid play from a French forward -- playing the scrum-half -- gave Wales the chance to kick into the 22. From there they rumbled a powerful driving maul forward, only for a knock-on to happen at the tackle two phases later. With just under seven minutes to go, this wasn't their last roll of the dice. But it wasn't far off.
But given the nature of this gripping -- if at times poor in quality - contest, there was another twist. With the French scrum backpedaling, replacement Wales scrum-half Tomos Williams was able to rip the ball free from opposite number Baptiste Serin and although the ball appeared to travel slightly forward, Justin Tipuric was there to snaffle it. While Tipuric was shut down just short of the line, Moriarty, the man who had been sin-binned for a high tackle earlier in the match, was there to force his way over from the next phase. When Biggar nailed the conversion, Wales had scratched out a victory they won't reflect on with any great pride, but one that keeps them in the tournament for another week.
"You've got to take your hat off to France, I thought they were excellent, very unlucky today," Gatland said. "They've definitely improved since the Six Nations as a side. The better team lost today and that red card was obviously significant.
"Credit to these players, I'm really proud of the fact they just don't give up, they never give up, and even when they're under that pressure they just keep fighting and finding a way to get a result."