It was an act of grand larceny and Warren Gatland knew it. He didn’t even try to hide it. When the Wales’ coach went to console his opposite number, he spread his arms wide, as if joyously bewildered.
The gesture towards Jacques Brunel was telling. Gatland’s team had escaped to victory.
Deep down, he will have known that they scarcely deserved to snatch this result, which propels them into a second World Cup semi-final in the space of eight years. At least he had the good grace to admit that the French had been unlucky.
Wales’ players react after Ross Moriarty scores the match winning try to beat France in the Rugby World Cup quarter-final
Wales had to wait until the final six minutes before Moriarty’s converted try saw them defeat France 20-19 in the Oita Dome
Somehow, Wales played poorly – really poorly – and survived to tell the tale.
They benefited from two gifts; one from the opposition and one from the officials. First, France lock Sebastien Vahaamahina slung an elbow into the face of Aaron Wainwright and got himself sent off, just when his side were threatening to score another try and take an iron grip on this logic-defying quarter-final.
That incident came with half-an-hour remaining. The gift from the officials followed with just six minutes left. Gatland was sat powerless in the coaches’ box, watching his 12-year regime ebbing away in front of him when Wales were helped to get out of jail.
Sebastien Vahaamahina was given a red card in the second half following a horrific elbow on Aaron Wainwright (left)
Vahaamahina’s elbow during a ruck was not spotted by the referee but was investigated by TMO which led to his dismissal
Following the review there was no surprise when referee Jaco Peyper sent off the France lock to leave them with 14 men
France had a scrum in front of their line and they were driven back powerfully by the Welsh pack. Tomos Williams ripped the ball from the grasp of Louis Picamoles and Justin Tipuric grabbed it barely a metre out.
He hurled himself forward but was stopped short by Camille Lopez. But Ross Moriarty – who had been sin-binned earlier, soon after coming on as a replacement – was alongside in support and he was able to pick up and lunge over to score.
Up in the stand, Gatland maintained a measured expression, but inside he must have been churning. Referee Jaco Peyper referred the try-scoring sequence to TMO Marius Jonker and replays seemed to suggest that the ball had looped marginally forward after it was dislodged by Williams. Yet, having reviewed it carefully, the TMO and referee agreed to award the try.
Suddenly, the escape was on. Dan Biggar duly dispatched the routine conversion and Wales were ahead, by a single point. They still had to hold on as France raged gallantly against the dying of the light, but the Grand Slam champions demonstrated their resilience and resolve in those tense moments at the end.
They resisted gamely in the scrum, ran down the clock and eventually Biggar was able to dispatch the ball into the stand, to complete the improbable comeback.
Vahaamahina got France off to a flying start after scoring their first try in just the fifth minute at the Oita Stadium
Charles Ollivon went over the try line just three minutes later to leave Wales stunned in the Rugby World Cup quarter-final
Ollivon (right) celebrates his try, France’s second of the match in front of Wales’s George North (left), as they took control
Wales: L. Williams, North, Watkin, Parkes, Adams, Biggar, G. Davies (T. Williams 55), W. Jones (Carre 63), Owens (Dee 76), Francis (Lewis 63), Ball (Beard 63), A. Jones, Wainwright, Tipuric, Navidi (Moriarty 28)
Tries: Wainwright, Moriarty
Conversions: Biggar (2)
Penalties: Biggar (2)
France: Medard (Rattez 77), Penaud, Vakatawa, Fickou, Huget, Ntamack (Lopez 41), Dupont (Serin 73), Poirot (Baille 68), Guirado (Chat 50), Slimani (Setiano 73), Le Roux (Picamoles 66), Vahaamahina, Lauret, Ollivon, Alldritt (Gabrillagues 55)
Tries: Vahaamahina, Ollivon, Vakatawa
Conversions: Ntamack (2)
Red card: Vaahamahina
For Gatland, the late try prevented his tenure in charge of Wales ending in grim fashion, after so many glorious peaks over the years. But when the relief subsides, he will be in no doubt about the equation this week. If his side are not transformed in the space of seven days, their title challenge will end next weekend.
Yesterday, France were better in virtually every aspect of the game other than the crucial matter of accumulating points. They were powerful and fluent and creative. Their scrum-half, Antoine Dupont, delivered a master-class. Their centres, Gael Fickou and Virimi Vakatawa – the latter in particular – ran amok in midfield and spread mayhem in the Welsh defence.
If Wales want to fly under the radar, their performance was a perfect means of doing so. They will be written off, which is just how Gatland will like it.
What he won’t like is the task of reviewing the last half-hour, when his players toiled to overturn a deficit against 14 men. The Welsh attack scarcely functioned at all. There was no authority when they sought to shift the ball wide. Their decision-making unravelled alarmingly.
But still, they found a way to win – and extend their crusade to the penultimate round of this tournament.
In 2011, that was where it ended, with defeat to these opponents in Auckland. They will surely need Jonathan Davies back if they are to avoid the same fate this time. The Lions centre was ruled out shortly before kick-off and his guile and nous were sorely missed.
France were regarded as the underdogs here, but they didn’t play like it. They were two tries to the good within eight minutes.
The first came from a lineout drive and Vahaamahina was the one who forced his way over to score – before going on to become the pantomime villain, for his wild assault on Wainwright which Peyper punished appropriately. The second saw flanker Charles Ollivon storm clear to the posts, after Vakatawa, Romain Ntamack and Dupont combined superbly in midfield.
But France soon blew a huge chunk of their 12-0 lead when Wainwright broke through to score for Wales and it was game on
Wainwright is congratulated by his Wales team-mates after his 12th minute try brought a much needed early response
Wales’ back row Moriarty (left) was sin-binned after making a high tackle on France’s centre Gael Fickou in the first half
Ntamack added the conversion and Wales were 12-0 down, before Wainwright hit back at the other end; pouncing when French captain Guilhem Guirado spilled the ball in contact and bursting away to score a try which Biggar converted.
When the Wales fly-half added a penalty in the 20th minute, it appeared that his side were seizing the initiative, but then they lost it again.
Josh Navidi had to go off injured and his replacement, Moriarty, was swiftly sin-binned for a high tackle on Fickou. France capitalised, as their pack battered up-field again and Damian Penaud’s off-load released Vakatawa, who stretched to score.
After the break, Vahaamahina’s dismissal presented Wales with a chance to revive and conquer. They took it, just about. Gatland knows they were fortunate, but a lucky win was certainly preferable to his regime ending with a tame World Cup demise.
France took advantage of Wales going down to 14 men just before the break when Vrimi Vakatawa went over for their third try
Vakatawa’s try helped give France a 19-10 lead over Wales at half-time as he is congratulated by team-mates