They lost and there is no dispute; either of that fact, or that but for the quietly shocking dismissal of the Welsh skipper Sam Warburton, they would surely have won.
It may be no surprise to hear that the post-match atmosphere in Wales is heavily loaded with a disappointment close to grief. I can, however assure you that even allowing for the wonderful absurdities of the form/ability/results relationship and yes, the keener than usual levels of malingering celtic defiance, the game would have been won by Wales had Warburton stayed on the pitch. Fact or no fact – everybody knows that, feels that.
For Wales had started comfortably and were beginning to create. Hook – who sadly went on to have a relatively poor game, in truth – had absolutely nailed a testing penalty early on and although Phillips started quietly it seemed clear that Les Bleus as a unit could not match the threat and the verve of the Welsh. It was admittedly a blow when Adam Jones retired early injured, but by the quarter hour mark Wales has settled and the critical mass of their confidence was building, ominously.
Then at around 18 minutes, Warburton was the centre of what initially seemed a simply stunning hit. But the immediate reaction of the French lock Pascal Pape, who took near-violent exception to Warburton’s challenge, suggested something had happened. TV replays showed that indeed it had. Warburton lifted the oncoming French player and drove him up and back – all of which was legal. What happened next was critically, as they say, open to interpretation.
The man whose view counted most –referee Alain Rolland – understood that the felling of Vincent Clerc was dangerous because Warburton (he judged) after having lifted him drove him down towards the ground head and neck first. Thus it constituted a spear tackle and was a red card offence. Simply and pretty swiftly and without hesitation it seemed, Rolland proffered the card. The enormity of what had happened took a few moments to settle over the watching world. The game continued, whilst we tried to counter both our alarmingly sinking feeling(s) – muscle-memory played a significant part in this -and those more intellectually articulated emotions. In other words we shouted at the telly.
For this was major. In terms of judgement and impact: major.
The referee was in my view right that it was a spear tackle. (And there is no case against Rolland for having a general ‘shocker’). But critically Warburton actively released Vincent Clerc’s legs at the conclusion of the lift in the tackle – probably because he was aware of the danger to his opponent and to himself, in terms of facing a card. There was and to my knowledge never has been any substantial malice in a tackle from the Welsh skipper, a player who is now respected as one of the finest and most athletic and skilled exponents of the art of flankerhood in the world game. (In all seriousness… he is revered as a complete and honourable and genuine modern player.)
Some of this stuff is irrelevant to that tackle, I accept that. But the absence of malice is relevant, as is the release of Vincent Clerc’s legs, as is the completely untroubling context of the match at that point from the referee’s point of view. In a world-important game (and I know, only a game) it is surely worth a moment’s reflection to put such an incident into context – perhaps via a brief conversation with co-officials – in order to avoid the spoiling of the spectacle? A yellow card would have been fair and prudent; there was no need to make an example of anybody when there was no threat or suggestion of poor sportsmanship or deliberate foul play from any quarter. That moment meant that Wales could not play; it denied all of us a fabulous contest and delivered us a stunted, unsatisfactory affair. For these reasons (too), it’s hard not to be bitter.
Inevitably, Mike Phillips had something to say. As well as enjoying colourful and no doubt fluently expletive conversations with half the French pack, he darted through for the games only score. Ludicrously Wales dominated the second half – making a mockery of the notion that they might ‘hang on’. France – reasonably cutely – hung on; and waited. Wales missed three eminently kickable kicks and My Little But Magnificent Pony (Halfpenny) narrowly undercooked an effort from practically half-way. But Wales could not either quite raise brilliance or afford to raise it, being one superman short. At the death they went into overtime seeking a drop-goal or to force a penalty for Stephen Jones. The words tense, mighty and cruel do not, believe me, do it justice. After endless phases defended competently by the French… it fizzled out.
If I was a nobler man I would refrain from asking when – if ever – a team has done as little to get to a World Cup Final as France. They were okay against a diabolical England and okay against Wales. No better. Wales in contrast have been a revelation and more importantly, they have been good for the game. Had Warburton persisted, France would not have lived with his team’s energy, or pace, or passion, or confidence. In his innocence, Alain Rolland has denied the team of the tournament the right to play on.