Surely they can’t blow it this time?

AFTER 46 games and a weekend of semi-final action characterised by controversy, drama, incident and passion, the 2011 version of the World Cup has produced a carbon copy of what transpired here at the inaugural event 24 years ago — a final contested by New Zealand and France with Australia and Wales battling for the bronze medal.

History also repeated itself with the Welsh having a player sent off in the semi-final, even if the dismissal of Huw Griffiths against the All Blacks in 1987 had nothing like the impact of the sending off of Welsh captain Sam Warburton in Saturday’s contest.

If France sneaked to the final through the back door on Saturday night, New Zealand burst it wide open with the performance of the tournament yesterday. Their contest against Australia was played at a staggering pace and intensity. In the end it was their work rate and tenacity in the contact area that proved crucial. France will have looked on and wondered how they will be able to compete with this.

The big contest coming into this game was the battle at the breakdown and New Zealand won it hands down. Richie McCaw has been a pale shadow of himself and has not trained properly for over three weeks due to injury. He appreciated more than anyone that with David Pocock producing the best individual performance of the tournament last weekend against South Africa, he had to lead the All Black charge. The fact that beside him, his outrider Kieran Reid was also back to his best after injury problems to support the unstinting work that Jerome Kaino has delivered all tournament turned the tide very much in their favour. Pocock certainly had his moments as did Rocky Elsom but with the Wallaby front five struggling in the scrum they had no chance.

After losing two World Cup semi-finals to Australia, the New Zealand public were in a state of panic coming into this game. They need not have worried. From the moment this All Black side produced a theatric Ka Ponga version of the Haka to start proceedings it was clear they were in the zone and there would be no choking on this occasion.

They offered the Australians no space or time to operate and immediately set out to put all the pressure on New Zealand’s public enemy No 1 Quade Cooper. He had no chance after the nightmare of putting his kick off out on the full and followed up on a very poor performance against South Africa last weekend with another wayward opening 40 minutes. The variety that New Zealand brought to the tie, their ability to vary between a tight ball carrying game and a wide offloading game created havoc for the Wallabies from the start. They were powerless to do anything about it but to their eternal credit they stuck in there and never gave up. On this showing, New Zealand will be very difficult to beat but one fervently hopes that the French at least attempt to play some rugby.

Quite how they are in the final beggars belief. Wales must look back at the extraordinary circumstances of their semi-final and wonder how their dream campaign was ended so dramatically. The Irish players looking on from under the covers at home will also be entitled to ponder what might have been.

The fact that Wales with 14 men for 62 minutes were still in a position to win the game at the death tells you everything you need to know about the French. In his 103rd test, Stephen Jones will surely look back with regret at his failure to drop back in the pocket with five minutes left when Wales were in control of possession in the French twenty-two. Mike Phillips, superb once again, was imploring him to go for the drop goal but Jones inexplicably froze.

That, coupled with his rushed attempt at the conversion of Phillips’ try which grazed the upright, proved crucial. Add in Leigh Halfpenny’s penalty from half way which scraped the paint from the underside of the crossbar and you begin to appreciate just how close Wales were to a first ever World Cup final appearance.

Nothing went right for them. The injury which necessitated the departure of tight head prop Adam Jones after only 10 minutes coupled with the loss of rookie out half Rhys Priestland before kickoff stacked the odds against them. Alain Rolland’s decision to send Warburton off was correct if one is operating to the letter of IRB law and put him in a difficult position. Unfortunately the seasonal dictats often issued by the IRB don’t always cover every situation and discretion should apply. I always believe that the best referee’s apply common sense.

Warburton’s tackle was unquestionably dangerous but in my opinion he pulled out of it half way through when he assessed the danger to Vincent Clerc. There was no attempt to drive him to the ground but he could have helped his cause if he had somehow managed to sheppard the French player to the ground. These things happen in a split second however and it is difficult to make adjustments. There was no damage whatsoever done to the French winger who completed the game and I felt that Rolland may have been better served if he took more time over the decision.

In those circumstances a yellow card would have sufficed and if a citing commissioner deemed it necessary to investigate further on completion of the game, which may have compromised Warburton’s place in the final had Wales advanced, so be it. Given that Warburton received a minimum three week suspension yesterday shows where the disciplinary panel viewed the issue. He had to get some sanction or else Rolland would have been hung out to dry for applying the law as he had been instructed.

To lose a World Cup semi-final in this fashion will haunt this Welsh team for the rest of their lives. To their eternal credit they played all the positive rugby right up to the final whistle. The Welsh could even have been cynical and withdrawn replacement prop Paul James who was savaged in the scrum after the departure of Jones, with some form of injury and insisted on uncontested scrums to ease their plight. That would have enabled them to keep their most potent attacker Jamie Roberts positioned in midfield instead of utilising his considerable bulk to stabilise their scrum on every Welsh put in. I can think of other sides that would have had no hesitation in going down that route.

While respect is everything, a place in the final of the World Cup would feel so much better at this stage.

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