By Paul French
A lone young supporter draped in a Welsh flag in an emptying Millennium Stadium is the abiding image of Wales’s agonising World Cup exit.
It was a night of what if’s for Warren Gatland’s team. What if Sam Warburton had only seen yellow, what if James Hook hadn’t lost his footing when going for goal and what if Leigh Halfpenny had been able to get the ball to fly, just a little further.
For a nation who invests so much emotion in their rugby team, to have come so close and to a backdrop of adversity, defeat was a very bitter pill to swallow.
It may be a cliché, but sport like life, can be cruel.
Sam Warburton was on top of the rugby world, captaining a team seemingly bound for a historic first ever World Cup final appearance. It only took a matter of seconds for the dream to turn into a nightmare. Alain Rolland a stickler for applying the rules of the game rigidly dispatched the player, who more than any other player has embodied the spirit of the new and fearless Wales. With Adam Jones, so crucial to the Welsh forward effort having already limped off, that all too ominous sinking feeling began to take hold.
Had the hour that followed Warburton’s early departure been a procession of French tries, the end result would have been easier to digest. Referee Rolland could easily have been labelled as the villain of the piece, and scapegoat accordingly. But the crueller reality of what actually happened is that Wales choked.
Even with only fourteen men, France were there for the taking.
Wales’s decision-making deserted them when it really mattered. In any other match Stephen Jones, who had steadied the ship for Wales, after a below par return to the Welsh number ten shirt for James Hook, would have been able to convert the sole try of the game and execute a simple drop goal.
The men in red, who had been so excellent when in came to ball retention in the last month, failed to adapt to the obvious French tactic of keeping their opponents close to the touchline. The Welsh lineout imploded, so vastly improved in recent months, imploded as erratic throwing and miscommunication set in.
In some respects it was a similar story to the opening round defeat to the Springboks’.
For all their heroic effort and moments of brilliance, when it came to finishing off the job, Wales crumbled under the weight of expectation. While they may be lauded for being the fittest team physically in the tournament, mentally they were not quite tough enough when it boils down the fine margins that so often decide the pressure cooker sporting matches.
Perhaps what such a loss, as the one at Eden Park tells us, is that for all the optimism surrounding a very talented team, they are not quite the finished article.
When things have gone well for Wales in this tournament they have gone very well.
However when injury and refereeing decisions have gone against them, doubt and indecision have hindered them.
Rather fortunately this is a predominately young Welsh outfit that will, after a period of intense disappointment, be all the stronger for such a crushing experience.
Having shown so much character to get to the semi-finals in the first place, a third place play-off encounter with Australia on Friday, already looks ripe for Warren Gatland’s side to bounce back.
- Paul French is a rugby blogger based in Cardiff – you can read his sporting insights at Flyhalffactory.wordpress.com or follow him on Twitter @PaulLeoFrench