France reaches World Cup final, edges Wales 9-8
Updated: October 15, 2011, 06:18
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AUCKLAND, New Zealand(AP) France squeaked into the Rugby World Cup final with a thrilling 9-8 win over a Wales side which threatened a miracle after its inspirational captain Sam Warburton was sent off on Saturday.
Wales seemed to have buried itself when Warburton picked up France winger Vincent Clerc and dropped him dangerously in the 18th minute, while leading 3-0. Irish referee Alain Rolland sent off the skipper immediately, and just as quickly the muted crowd's sympathies swung to Wales.
The Welsh gave the 58,629 in attendance plenty to cheer in Eden Park, with a terrific defense that forced 11 handling errors, held in the scrums, and, more importantly, stayed in touch with France on the scoreboard.
Wales even scored the only try to scrumhalf Mike Phillips, whose decisive score also ended Ireland hopes in the quarterfinals. But they barely missed two chances to grab the lead, when replacement flyhalf Stephen Jones' conversion glanced off the left post, and fullback Leigh Halfpenny's penalty attempt from halfway fell under the crossbar.
Wales would rue its off-day with the boot. After James Hook landed his first penalty, he and Jones and Halfpenny would combine to miss six more kicks, including two ugly dropped goal attempts.
"It was always going to be tough after the sending off. But we gave our all to the end,'' said stand-in captain Gethin Jenkins.
French flyhalf Morgan Parra knocked over all three of his penalty chances and France scraped through to a meeting with the winner of Sunday's semifinal between New Zealand and Australia.
"We didn't play so well,'' France captain Thierry Dusautoir said. "We played with our heart.''
The final will be France's third, and by curious coincidence they're at 12-year intervals: 1987, 1999 and 2011. The Tricolores hardly featured in both previous finals, however, with heavy losses to the All Blacks in the first and the Wallabies in the second.
A drizzle began 20 minutes before the match and ended at kickoff to give the grass a slick cover. Halfpenny made the first mistake, knocking on under pressure by his quarterline after a 15-meter charge by France hooker William Servat. Wales was let off when Nicolas Mas' pass to fellow prop Jean-Baptiste Poux was dropped.
Moments later, Hook's crosskick was caught on the left wing by big George North, and midfielder Maxime Mermoz was penalized at the bottom of a ruck for being offside. Hook goaled from 28 meters.
Wales tighthead prop Adam Jones walked off with a right knee injury and was replaced by Paul James, and the Welsh scrum still earned a penalty when France's was whistled for collapsing. But Hook couldn't convert the chance from 40 meters straight out front.
The turning point arrived in the 18th when Dusautoir won a lineout, and Clerc came around only to be picked up and dangerously dumped on his back by Warburton, who was immediately red carded.
Midfielder Jamie Roberts joined the side of the scrum, but Wales was strangely penalized for collapsing after its own put-in. Parra, despite resounding boos, had no problem equalizing from an angled 25 meters.
Yachvili then tried to create a try all on his own, when he ghosted through the line and took the attack into Wales' 22, then charged down Hook. Poux regathered the ball, and the attack only died when North jolted the ball from Mermoz.
Hook missed a shot from 45 meters to put his side back in front, then Roberts broke into France territory, and Hook punted to the right corner, but Alexis Palisson beat Shane Williams to the ball.
Wales No. 8 Toby Faletau played ruck ball on the ground to give away the penalty which Parra nailed from 35 meters to give France the 6-3 lead it took into halftime.
Soon after the restart, France replaced Servat and Poux in the front row but still couldn't make an impression, while the ineffectual Hook was replaced to cheers by Jones, who extended his Wales caps record to 103.
Parra did his best to get France over the line in the third quarter, making a break and passing to Clerc, but Faletau stole that ruck. An outrageous reverse pass of at least 20 meters found Dusautoir in midfield. Eventually, France got a rolling maul going off a lineout and James was penalty for collapsing it on his 22. Parra made the shot for 9-3 in the 50th.
Nine minutes later, Phillips struck out of the blue, darting down the blindside through an attempted tackle by Pascal Pape and scooting over. But Jones missed the conversion, then duffed a dropped goal.
Mas gave away a penalty in a ruck in the 76th and thought he'd blown it for France, but Halfpenny didn't quite have the distance into the breeze, and France survived.
France 9 (Morgan Parra 3 penalties), Wales 8 (Mike Phillips try; James Hook penalty). HT: 6-3.