Rugby World Cup referees were in the spotlight again after Sam Warburton was red-carded for a dangerous tip-tackle that left the Welsh without their inspirational captain for more than an hour of a semifinal they lost 9-8 to France on Saturday.
France held on to advance to its third World Cup final by a thread, struggling to contain a determined Wales team and conceding the only try of the match — then watching as the Welsh kickers missed conversion, dropped goal and penalty attempts that would have clinched a stunning win.
Irish referee Alain Rolland sent Warburton off in the 18th minute when Wales led 3-0. The Welsh battled gamely as Morgan Parra landed three penalties to give France a 9-3 lead before scrumhalf Mike Phillips’ solo try cut the margin to one point and ensured a thrilling finish.
“I feel hollow,” Wales coach Warren Gatland said. “For an experienced referee to make such a quick decision in a semifinal of the World Cup, I just thought that decision ruined the semifinal.
“I just felt our destiny of having a chance of making the final was taken away from us with the red card.”
France’s reputation for being the most hot-and-cold team in international rugby was only extended at this tournament. After patchy wins over Japan and Canada, the French lost to New Zealand and went down in a sensational upset to Tonga to just barely scrape into the knockout rounds.
Marc Lievremont’s squad was in complete disarray amid rumours of a schism between players and coaching staff but somehow rallied to beat England in the quarterfinals after racing to a 16-0 lead.
Now they’re in the World Cup final to complete a neat piece of symmetry — the trips to the final come every dozen years. The French haven’t come close to winning a final yet, losing heavily to New Zealand in 1987 and to Australia in 1999. They’ll meet one of those teams in the deciding match this time.
Archrivals New Zealand and Australia clash in the other semifinal Sunday. The Australians go in with the most recent win in more than a century of head-to-heads — the victory in Brisbane in August which clinched the Tri-Nations title.
And the Wallabies have beaten the All Blacks in both their previous World Cup semifinal meetings but the All Blacks have an impressive record at home and haven’t lost to Australia at Eden Park since 1986.
Lievremont will no doubt be hoping the world’s top two ranked teams smash each other on Sunday.
“We’ve come up short in a lot of ways in the last few months except that we’re in the World Cup final,” Lievremont said. “The least we can do is pay homage to this Welsh team who played with 14 players and showed extraordinary courage. We probably have a lucky star over us.”
The French only came close to scoring one try against the Welsh defense despite an advantage in possession and manpower, dispensing with the famous flair and resorting to kicks for field position.
“I couldn’t care less if it wasn’t a great match,” Lievremont said. “If we were lucky and the Welsh deserved it more than us, we’re in the final and that’s all that counts.”
No doubt the 61 540 fans who crammed into Cardiff’s Millennium Stadium to watch the match on giant TV screens will have an opinion on that. That was more than the 58 629 at Eden Park on a wet Saturday night in Auckland.
A British betting agency even decided to refund wagers on the Welsh due to the decision to red card Warburton.
Shaun Edwards, the Wales defensive coach, described the decision as “a travesty for the competition because clearly the team who should be playing [in the final] is not going to be.”
Warburton may miss the third-place playoff on Friday night. Four other players have been suspended for tip tackles in the tournament, with penalties ranging from three to five weeks — Tonga’s Suka Hufanga getting the harshest ban for his tackle on Clerc on October 2.
Referees have been in the thick of the news at the World Cup. Bryce Lawrence’s loose interpretations on the rules for the tackle area stirred a massive backlash in South Africa last week when the defending champion Springboks lost 11-9 to Australia despite having a glut of possession and territory in the quarterfinal.
Within days, more than 65 000 Facebook users had backed a petition to have Lawrence banned from refereeing.
Welsh referee Nigel Owens was called a racist for his handling of a match the previous week involving South Africa and Samoa — this time the grievance was on the other side. A Samoan player attended a hearing on Saturday for his Twitter outburst against Owens and was given a six-month ban, suspended immediately provided he apologised to the referee and accepted other conditions.
Gatland wants the International Rugby Board (IRB) to explain Rolland’s decision on Warburton, who has been one of the star players of the tournament and has a reputation for clean living on and off the field. Gatland said there was no malice in the tackle and it warranted no more than a yellow card — which means a player spends 10 minutes in the sin bin.
“If someone tells me that’s the correct decision or if [IRB referees chief] Paddy O’Brien comes out and says he’s made the right decision, then I’ll come out and say that I’m wrong,” Gatland said. “But this has been a fantastic tournament and … we’ve seen one or two games where the referees unfortunately haven’t been consistent enough in one or two areas as far as I’m concerned.
“It’s no discredit to France or their players because they didn’t make that decision. They’re in the final. I just hope they play a bit more rugby than they did tonight.” — Sapa