Wales 20-19 France

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Wales battled past 14-man France to secure a spot in the Rugby World Cup semi-finals in an attritional game in Oita.

The suggestion was that the better team lost as players and pundits reflected on the game but that won’t matter one bit to Warren Gatland and his men, as the head coach extended his time in charge for another two weeks.

He had initially named a team unchanged from that which beat Georgia and Australia in the first two games of the pool stage, but there was a late blow for Wales as key man Jon Davies was ruled out after aggravating a knee injury in the captain’s run, with Owen Watkin starting and Leigh Halfpenny coming on to the bench.

That change, as well as France having a two-week break after seeing their final pool stage game against England postponed by Typhoon Hagibis, seemed to have a big impact on the early exchanges of the game as Les Bleus were on top early on.

Some sloppy Welsh work at the breakdown allowed the opposition to kick to the corner and they wasted no time in showing off their power, taking the driving maul to within inches of the try line before Seb Vahaamahina pushed over.

Ntamack missed the conversion but made no mistake just three minutes later when he was back on a conversion as Virimi Vakatawa broke from deep before good hands from France saw openside flanker Charles Ollivon run under the posts.

At this point there was concern that a cricket score could be on the cards, but in typically French manner they went from sublime to ridiculous shortly after going 12-0 up, as a straight forward carrying phase saw them cough up possession in contact.

Charles Ollivon France
Ollivon races clear of George North

The loose ball fell perfectly for Aaron Wainwright who showed great awareness to scoop it up and turn on the afterburners for his first ever test level try, with Dan Biggar converting to get Wales back into the game.

Over the next 20 minutes the game started to settle down, as the Welsh managed to recover some defensive shape and both teams attempted to dominate the kicking game, but it was an injury to Josh Navidi that shook things up ahead of half-time.

A hamstring knock forced him from the field and his replacement Ross Moriarty only lasted 90 seconds before heading to the sin bin after making a high tackle when covering a dangerous France break.

Les Bleus pinned us back in the 22 and although the defence was initially good the pressure was ramped up before a Damien Penaud offload released Vakatawa to bag a well deserved try, with Ntamack adding the extras.

That’s how it would stay until half-time, with Ntamack hitting the post with a penalty as the clock turned red, with the five points left on the field by the young fly-half proving crucial as the game wore on.

Back up to the a full complement of players, Wales started to work back into the game early in the second half, until another intervention from referee Jaco Peyper turned the encounter completely on it’s head.

France set up a driving maul in a dangerous position, but an act of mindless violence from Vahaamahina at the front of the set piece, that saw him clearly strike Wainwright in the jaw with his elbow, resulted in a red card for the lock.

Seb Vahaamahina France
Vahaamahina is shown a red card

With a man advantage, over half an hour left and just a six point deficit, it seemed like it was Wales’ game for the taking, however as time wore on it seemed like Gatland’s men were going to be unable to capitalise.

A first dangerous attack came to a close when George North’s pass was intercepted by Yoann Huget, before Dillon Lewis knocked on just as momentum was being gathered on a second venture into the France 22.

In the end though the breakthrough would come from two moments of brilliance produced by young players introduced off the bench,

First, Rhys Carre produced a huge shunt to send the French scrum backwards, before Tomos Williams was able to wrestle the ball from an under pressure Ollivon with the rip landing in the basket of Justin Tipuric.

He was stopped short but Ross Moriarty was on hand to put the ball down over the line and Biggar converted to give Wales the lead for the first time in 74th minute.

The longest five minutes ever recorded followed as nervy Wales fans all over the country and the world willed the seconds to tick away, before eventually was able to launch the ball high into the stand as the clock turned red.

Arguably the worst Welsh performance in the last two years but thanks to a mix of grit and determination, as well as some questionable French discipline and decision making, Warren Gatland has take his team to a semi-final once again.

Next Sunday will see Wales face South Africa in Yokohama, knowing that they are just 80 minutes from going down in history.

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