History to repeat after Rugby World Cup semis

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In hindsight, It probably was my fault. Just prior to kickoff in Saturday’s first Rugby World Cup Semi-Final between Wales and France, I commented via Twitter: “Whatever result comes from either #RWC2011 semi tonight and tomorrow, I just hope we’re talking about the rugby and not the refs on Monday..”

As Sam Warburton was dragging his stunned face off Eden Park, and with Alain Rolland’s red card still aloft behind him, sometime Roarer Westius came back swiftly with, “took all of 10 mins to ruin that idea!”

Though the talk has somewhat died down three days later, I maintain Rolland got it right. Whatever you think of the decision itself, and what effect the decision had on the game, one thing remains unarguable: Warburton lifted French winger Vincent Clerc above the horizontal and ultimately dropped him on his shoulders and neck.

And the IRB’s directive on this matter, first issued in 2009 and reiterated several times since by referee’s boss Paddy O’Brien, is quite clear about possible scenarios regarding lifting tackles, including:

“The player is lifted and then forced or “speared” into the ground. A red card should be issued for this type of tackle.”

When the Warburton’s tackle is looked at, and this directive is applied, it’s clear that Rolland didn’t have a whole lot of choice. Warburton had to go.

What ensued for the remaining 61 minutes was a team performance for the RWC annals. With only 14 men, Wales pushed France until the very end, and it is still hard to argue with Welsh defence Coach Shaun Edwards’ blunt post-match offering, “The team that should be in the World Cup final on Sunday won’t be.”

The loss of Rhys Priestland before the match really hurt Wales’ chances of stretching France, even with a full complement of players. James Hook started well enough, and kicked smartly at stages during the first half, but as the game went on, he seemed to panic and lose his way.

During the half time break, Queensland Reds coach Ewen McKenzie offered his typically astute thoughts, saying via Twitter, “If I was Wales I would not kick the ball at all – multiple phases – simple focus on ball retention – France will stress without the ball”.

Minutes after the break, McKenzie followed up with “Hook is killing me. Stop kicking away front foot ball in particular”. Now, I’m not sure if Welsh coach Warren Gatland is a follower, but not a minute later Hook was … well, you know. Stephen Jones went on, but nothing really improved.

Now yes, Mike Phillips would score his second brilliant blindside sniping try in a week, and you’d have been excused for thinking Eden Park had been temporarily relocated to Cardiff for the night, such was the noise as the Welsh were urged home. But in the end, they just couldn’t land the killer blow.

The last period of play probably highlights Wales’ night perfectly. 26 phases of possession just inside the French half, and with Jones standing deep in the pocket for a good chunk of them, yet the Welsh couldn’t get themselves any closer. In fact, for the last ten phases they lost ground, which forced Jones to spread the ball wide in desperation, only to see Jamie Roberts cough the ball up in the scramble. France were through to their second RWC Final at Eden Park.

My point in all this is that France proved the old scoring adage that “you don’t have to draw a picture”. They won through to another crack at lifting “Bill” by doing the simple things right, just as they did in their Quarter Final against England. Thought at times they didn’t look like they wanted to play much rugby, at the times they had to, they did it very, very well.

Their scrum was solid all night, their defence in the second half – and the last twenty minutes especially – was from the top shelf, and their dual scrumhalves, Dimitry Yachvili and Morgan Parra, kicked superbly for territory all game. They did precisely what they needed to do to win, and nothing more. You don’t have to draw a picture.

We’re now left with a repeat of the inaugural RWC Final, and though France will obviously be hoping for a different result from 1987, I don’t like their chances.

New Zealand are through to a third RWC final, and the surprise is perhaps not they beat Australia as clinically as they did (and do, it seems), but that there were people outside patriotic lines giving the Wallabies a chance in the first place.

The All Blacks were always going to be up for this game, and when Quade Cooper kicked off straight into touch, you just had a bad feeling about how the night might turn out for the Wallabies. The old line, “started off s#$%house and went downhill from there” instantly sprang to mind.

And that would turn out to be a fair assessment of the Wallabies’ performance.

On full time, Richie McCaw had the satisfied look of a satisfied captain, and he was walking remarkably freely for a man whose foot injury was supposedly on the verge of requiring amputation. He wasn’t quite at his peak, but he still held his own in the company of New Zealand’s outstanding backrow for the whole 80 minutes.

Of course, they weren’t the only black-clad trio to run amok. Cory Jane was the official Man of the Match, but it could just as easily have been Israel Dagg or even Israel Dagg’s prodigious right boot. These two (three) and back three partner Richard Kahui made sure the aerial game was a virtual no-contest, and I lost count of the number of times they made something from nothing from a kick-return and clever offload.

On the other side of the ledger, if there’s a word to describe the Wallabies in general play, it’s ‘panicked’. As the night went on and time got away, the panic only seemed to intensify. Passes were pushed. Ruck ball wasn’t released. Runners became isolated. Footing was lost. At one stage, skipper James Horwill’s errant touch on a descending bomb sent the ball cannoning forward straight into the hands of an offside Adam Ashley-Cooper. It was that sort of night.

Wallaby fans – me included – had a bit of fun with the #HandsOffSevenBlack hash tag over the weekend, but it might have had the opposite effect from that desired. “7 Gold” seemed to feature in Craig Joubert’s game commentary fairly regularly. Try as he might, David Pocock just didn’t have the same effectiveness as he did in the Quarters, although given what he got away with against South Africa, it’s probably a case of things evening out, as they tend to.

And before anyone assumes anything, that’s not a slight on Joubert’s refereeing at all. He had an excellent game with the whistle, and the Final will be a fitting reward.

In the end, the best team on the night – if not of the tournament – won comfortably, even though 17 points were left on the field, generally to the right of the uprights.

If I’m honest, I always imagined New Zealand would bring about Australia’s Rugby World Cup demise in 2011. This might have happened a game earlier than forecast (or hoped), but it has happened anyway. We all like to joke about the All Blacks past penchants for falling at the second- or third-last hurdle, but I didn’t believe it would happen this time.

A second possession of the William Webb Ellis trophy would be apt for what has clearly been the best rugby team in the world for some time.

With another New Zealand-France RWC final, and again at Eden Park, it seems Split Enz might have got it wrong all those years ago. I’m quite sure history will repeat next Sunday night in Auckland.

Brett McKay is a former non-tackling scrumhalf and not-quite-first-grade middle order stalwart. A rugby and cricket expert for The Roar since July 2009, Brett has written for Inside Rugby and Cricket Australia, and is also PLAY Canberra's rugby correspondent. He tweets from @BMcSport
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