Wales captain sent off in World Cup semifinal
Updated: October 15, 2011, 08:45
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AUCKLAND, New Zealand(AP) Young Wales captain Sam Warburton has built a shining reputation at the Rugby World Cup for his tireless performances, his exemplary leadership and his decent, teetotal lifestyle.
After only 18 minutes of his team's semifinal against France on Sunday that reputation was sullied when he was sent off for a dangerous tip tackle on French winger Vincent Clerc.
Wales battled courageously for 62 minutes with only 14 men and without a leader before going down 9-8. France now proceeds to the tournament final against the winner of Sunday's semifinal between Australia and New Zealand, having also reached the final when the World Cup was last held in New Zealand in 1987.
"Obviously I'm gutted with the red card,'' Warburton said. "There was nothing malicious (in the tackle) and no malicious intent.''
Irish referee Alain Rolland acted immediately to red card Warburton who lifted and heavily dumped Clerc and who will now face a judicial hearing in Auckland, likely early next week. Wales coach Gatland said the referee may have acted too hastily, making a spur of the moment decision which cost his team the match and deprived his team of it's destiny.
"The thing that surprises me is that the reaction of the referee is instant and I thought an experienced referee at that stage would have said 'well hang on a minute, let's bring my two touchies in, lets have a chat','' Gatland said.
"You would have thought they would have had a chance to have a look at the screen, see the replay and perhaps make a cool judgment. But it's just come out of the blue, quickly. We were discussing in the box what's happening and someone said 'he's off!'
"For an experienced referee to make such a quick decision in a semifinal of the world cup, I just thought that decision ruined the semifinal. A team that goes down to 14 men shouldn't be in the competition, shouldn't even have an opportunity so I just felt our destiny of having a chance of making the final was taken away from us with the red card.''
Gatland said the sanction of a red card was far more than Warburton's action deserved.
"Does that mean from now on every time there's a tackle made and you lift someone that it's got to be a red card?'' he asked.
"If someone tells me that's the correct decision or if (IRB referees chief) Paddy O'Brien comes out and says he's made the right decision then I'll come out and say that I'm wrong. But this has been a fantastic tournament and ... we've seen one or two games where the referees unfortunately haven't been consistent enough in one or two areas as far as I'm concerned.
"It's no discredit to France or their players because they didn't make that decision. They're in the final.''
The red card was a bitter blow to Warburton who became one of the most admired players at the tournament as he led his team, after an opening loss to world champion South Africa, to three wins in pool play and an upset quarterfinal win over Ireland. His parents Jeremy, a 52-year-old firefighter, and Carolyn, a 49-year-old health care worker, had flown from Wales on Tuesday and were among the crowd of 58,629 at Eden Park.
Warburton's coach and teammates have had nothing but praise for the young flanker, who turned 23 last week, and who was thrust into the Welsh captaincy when hooker Matthew Rees was ruled out with a shoulder injury only weeks before the tournament began.
Teammates have spoken throughout the World Cup of Warburton's quiet, understated but inspirational captaincy. They describe him as a man of few words and one who leads by example.
"Sam's not that kind of player, there was nothing malicious,'' Gatland said. "He was up against a very small player and he's gone into the tackle and he probably has lifted him, we accept that, but the end result wasn't carrying on with the tackle, wasn't driving the player into the ground or driving the player onto his head, which is what lifting or a spear tackle is. I can accept the lifting and, yes, that's a yellow card but I cannot see how that can be a red card situation.''
Warburton has always been a powerful tackler and a physical presence in loose play. He caught Clerc on Saturday trying to find a gap on the narrow side of a breakdown, hit the lightly framed French winger low down, lifting him then dropping him on his back.
"It felt as soon as I hit him his body weight took control of what happened,'' he said. "I think it was a normal tackle and next thing I know I was walking off into the stand.''
Rugby's rules around lifting tackles require a player who has raised an opponent off the ground in a tackle to ensure he is safely returned to the ground.
Warburton swept up Clerc in one clean motion, his low body position and greater weight lifting the winger from the ground. He then dropped the Frenchman heavily on his back and shoulders, an action that appeared unintentional but was still dangerous.
Warburton is the 16th player to be sent off in a Rugby World Cup match and the second at the current tournament after Samoa fullback Paul Williams. Williams was contentiously dismissed for striking during his team's pool match against South Africa.
The only other Welsh player to have been shown a red card at a world cup is lock Huw Richards who was sent off in Wales' semifinal against New Zealand in Brisbane in 1987.