by Tom Young
WALES advanced to the semi-finals of the Rugby World Cup for the third time after they defeated 14 man France 20-19 in a thriller in Japan.
Sebastien Vehaamahina’s second half red card proved fatal for Les Bleus, who led by as many as 12 but ultimately came up short against a lacklustre Welsh side.
Ross Moriarty, who himself had seen time in the sinbin, grabbed the game’s decisive try five minutes from time to book the Welsh a semi-final berth, where they will meet either Japan or South Africa.
France came charging out of the blocks and opened the scoring after just five minutes through Vehaamahina. The 6’6″ lock powered his way through two would-be tackles to burrow over the line from close range. Romain Ntamack’s fairly straightforward conversion bounced back of the upright.
Things went from bad to worse for Wales, as the French grabbed a second try just two minutes later with a sublime long range effort.
Virimi Vakatawa made the initial half break and found the inside pass to Ntamack, who drew his man and fed the ball to Antoine Dupont. He found Charles Ollvon, who raced away under the sticks to score. No mistake from the tee this time.
Wales needed a response, and they got one after 12 minutes through a rather unlikely source. A big hit from Jake Ball saw the French lose possession 30 metres out, with flanker Aaron Wainwright the quickest to react, picking up the loose ball and racing away to score his first World Cup try.
The try came against the run of play but seemed to hand the initiative back to the pre-game favourites and they further cut the deficit to two points on the 20 minute mark. The Welsh opting for the three points after a high hit by Vehammahina on Ball, Dan Biggar made it two from two from the tee.
Wales were forced into an early change, with Ross Moriarty coming on for Josh Navidi who picked up what appeared to be a hamstring injury.
Moriarty found himself back on the sidelines just 90 seconds later, South African referee Jaco Peyper showing the flanker a yellow card after he caught Gael Fickou with a high challenge.
France had 10 minutes to make their numerical advantage count, but it took them just two. Virimi Vakatawa grabbing his second of the tournament after some more quick hands from the French.
Once again Ntamack was at the heart of it. The Toulouse fly-half through an inch perfect pass to Damian Penaud, he found Vakatawa who wrongfooted Liam Williams and forced his way over. France 19-10 Wales.
With seven minutes to go until halftime, damage limitation was the key for Wales who looked to ensure the game didn’t fall out of reach.
The French were camped inside the Welsh 22, however they failed to extend their lead.
WAL 20-19 FRA
Remarkable finish in #RWCOita for tireless Wales against the spirited French! Both sides will remember that one for a long time to come…
— Welsh Rugby Union 🏉 (@WelshRugbyUnion) October 20, 2019
It was a combination of great scramble defence from Wales and sloppy kicking from the boot of Ntamack, who missed a great opportunity to add a further three points just shy of half time when his penalty attempt cannoned back off the upright. His poor kicking would prove costly.
There was just the one change at half time for the French, with Camile Lopez taking to the field in place of Romain Ntamack, who looked to have pick up a knock in the latter stages of the first half.
Lopez, known for his stellar kicking game, took just three minutes to have an attempt at the sticks, however he dragged his long range drop goal to the left of the posts.
France enjoyed more good field position in the Welsh 22 in the early exchanges in the second half and looked like extending their lead, before a moment of madness from Sebastien Vahaamahina.
Wales were handed a penalty after some poor play in the maul, however it was the big screens in the Oita Stadium which alerted Jaco Peyper to the incident.
Vahaamahina first wrapped his arms around the neck of Wainwright, before driving his elbow into the Welshman’s face. After a short consultation with the video referee, Vahaamahina was sent for an early bath.
As you would expect, the Welsh began to take control of the game and with the clock and numerical advantage both in their favour, they opted for a three pointer on the 53 minute mark. Dan Biggar retained his 100% conversion rate to bring Wales within a score.
France’s defence were given a much needed break after they were awarded a pressure relieving penalty not long after the Welsh kick off but despite yet again seeing ball deep in Welsh territory, they couldn’t turn their possession into points.
With France down a key forward, Warren Gatland threw on Rhys Carre, Dillon Lewis and Adam Beard to try and add some spark in the forward pack.
The kicking game of Maxime Medard looked key to any French success, with the French full-back continuing his good form with the boot to keep Wales pinned in their own half.
The Welsh pressure was beginning to build as the game entered its final quarter. A half break from Liam Williams looked to set the Welsh away, however the resolute French defence once again stood strong and forced the turnover before being awarded another pressure relieving penalty to advance to the half-way line.
With the game entering its last ten minutes, it was do or die time for Wales, who were awarded a penalty and advanced to the French 22.
When the ball was knocked on by Owen Watkin, it appeared as though it was going to be one of those days for Wales, however they regained possession from the French scrum through Thomas Williams strip, with the ball falling into the hands of Ross Moriarty who crashed over.
A few nail biting moments followed as the referee sent the decision upstairs to the TMO, however, there was insufficient evidence to prove that the ball went forward and the referee stuck with his on-field decision to give the Welsh their first lead of the match with just five minutes left on the clock.
It was all about game management for Wales at this point and they did that perfectly as they edged their way to victory.