It was the saddest rugby match I ever watched. Sad because at the 18th minute only one ultimate conclusion would raise the contest from one of eternal controversy to one of historical triumph. Wales playing a man down for over 62 minutes of the match scored a try at the 58th minute to make the score France 9 – Wales 8. Stephen Jones’s conversion attempt grazed outside the left post and Wales spent the last 22 minutes trying to find the go ahead points. When Irish ref Alain Rolland’s whistle blew as Wales last multi-phase effort to raise the needed points ended in an inevitable knock-on way past 80 minutes, the verdict was sealed as eternal controversy. Wales arguably deserved place in their first World Cup final would be debated forever as being denied because of a red card in the 17th minute of the match.
Welsh captain Sam Warburton was sent off with a red card for a dangerous tackle on French winger Vincent Clerc. When the tackle occurred and the whistle blew, I wrote on the back of the match team sheet where I take notes “penalty”. I looked at the scoreboard clock for the time of occurrence (17:50). When I looked back at the pitch Warburton was walking off. I wrote down yellow card and as I finished the word card, the Kiwi journalist next to me in shocked disbelief muttered, “Red Card!” In that decision made in the flickering of an instance Rolland turned the story of the rugby played in this semi-final match to a story of the ref’s red card. The replays of Warburton’s tackle show no malicious intent. He did not drive Clerc head first into the pitch. A penalty, yellow card, and warning seemed more than appropriate. How does a ref make such a game altering decision in a nano-second? Wales carried on and dominated possession in the match with many opportunities to win. No matter how many times it is mentioned how valiantly they played to lose by one point (playing a man down for three fourths of the match), the hapless drop kicks by Hook and Jones, the missed conversion by Jones, and missed penalty kicks by Hook and Halfpenny will haunt them for years to come. Many Welsh fans, as gracious as they can be, will inwardly carry a belief in the World Cup final that should have been if not for the harsh and unfair call of a misguided, anxious, confused, or possibly corrupt ref. From the Welsh opening foray to within the French 5 meter line in the first minute which ended in a knock-on and French scrum, the Welsh seemed destined to be plagued by some almost supernatural bad luck that would dangle the spot in the final just beyond their reach.
Kiwi commentator Phil Gifford claims, “There was no argument about Warburton being sent off. His tackle on Vincent Clerc was clumsy, not malicious, but still extremely dangerous. So while the red card was justified, ….” One can only wonder how supportive of the ref he would be if a clumsy but dangerous tackle tonight by Kaino or McCaw results in the All Blacks playing a man or two down for most of the match with the offenders banned from their next match. Other Kiwi sports journalists like Marc Hinton saw the call for what it was “a shame”. ‘The nature of the of Warburton’s tackle on Clerc called for more lenient treatment, if only for the sake of the contest.’ And so the match has slipped into eternal controversy with the story about Rolland’s call and not about the best team winning or the best team not being able to find the knock-out blow or game winning points on the day. Pre-tournament quotes from referee manager Paddy O’Brien about the refs ensuring the story of the matches are not about the ref have become almost laughable as the Springbok’s tirade against Lawrence’s reffing of their match with the Wallabies, Samoans criticize Owens reffing of their match with the Springboks, Barnes is criticized again for failing to call obvious forward passes, and now Rolland seemingly with conscious intent makes himself the main story of a World Cup semi-final.
French coach Lievremont felt the red card was deserved but was disappointed that the semi-final match became unbalanced so quickly. He went on to say his team did not play well adding that “sometimes when you have a team with one more player it doesn’t always play that well.” Strange that he would almost blame the Welsh for only having 14 players on the pitch for the poor performance of France. There is nothing in the rules that would have prohibited him from taking a player off to help his team play better. But the poor play of France will quickly fade from interest because the story is not about the rugby, it is about the red card.