Analysis: Welsh willpower overwhelms French flair in the end

Even before this quarter-final kicked off, it looked like the writing might be on the wall for Wales.

Even before this quarter-final kicked off, it looked like the writing might be on the wall for Wales.

Key cog Jonathan Davies was a late injury withdrawal, the French fans were drowning out the Welsh contingent under the Oita dome and everyone knows that Les Bleus always get it right for World Cups.

Then the game started, and those worst Welsh fears appeared to be confirmed.

Wales were sluggish while France were fantastic, scoring three stunning first-half tries and it could and probably should have been more.

But some how, some way, this Warren Gatland side just always seem to get over the line.

And while Sebastien Vahaamahina’s red card proved pivotal, it still took every drop of Welsh warrior spirit to claim their victory and put them into the semi-finals for the first time in eight years.

Four years ago, Wales were ripped apart by injury in their backline and exited at the quarter-final stage.

This time around, they are made of sterner stuff.

Alun Wyn Jones has been at pains to point out this is a squad effort, and here they rolled up their sleeves and got to work.

Owen Watkin came in at the 11th hour for only his ninth Test start, and comfortably the biggest yet.

But he has already shown in glimpses this tournament that he is unbowed by the big occasion, his late defensive rip on Samu Kerevi in the pool stage win over Australia was proof enough of that.

Then there was Josh Navidi, Wales’ workhorse in the back row, limping off inside half an hour as France threatened to run riot.

But, much like the meeting between these two sides back in the 2019 Championship in Paris in February, Wales rolled with the punches, stayed in the fight and then hit back.

Nowhere was that better emphasised than in their goal-line stand at the end of the first half.

Time and again players not necessarily renowned for their physical prowess like Josh Adams and Liam Williams came shooting out the line to keep the 14 men in the game.

And Gatland summed it up afterwards: “Credit to these players, I am so proud of these guys, they never give up, they keep fighting, and trying to find a way to get a result.

“We didn’t play our best tonight but we showed some great character, and that is testament to this group of men, we are very excited about the semi final.”

Aaron Wainwright is the only man in world rugby to have played 14 Tests this year.

He has burst into this Welsh back row out here in Japan, the only man in the squad to feature in every game so far, and this performance was his best yet.

When Wales needed something in that first half, with French runners rampant and already 12-0 ahead, it was the young Dragon who breathed fire into the fightback.

His solo score was magnificent, the presence of mind to scoop up a loose ball was one thing, but the turn of pace to sear clear under the posts something else entirely.

A hard hitting flanker by trade, Gatland has been saying all month out here in Japan that he wants him to rip off some more big carries.

And in the second half he showed he can swerve as well as sprint with a slaloming run down the right wing.

He has worked hard to become a viable lineout option as well, and with Navidi withdrawn early, he proved he can go 80 minutes in the big games.

“I didn’t think I’d be here a couple of years ago so it’s a massive achievement for me and the team. “We’ve been building for a couple of years now and now we have eyes on the semi-final and hopefully the final and hopefully we can come away with the trophy.”

It is a familiar story for France now under Jacques Brunel.

Squandering leads has been a long-standing problem for this side, but here with 14 men they deserve serious credit for the way they stayed in the fight up until the end.

The game management of Camille Lopez and the all-round brilliance of Antoine Dupont were magnificent as they prodded and probed and kept Wales at arm’s length for so much of the final quarter.

In the end their numerical disadvantage was always going to tell in the set-piece, but there are extremely encouraging signs for France moving forward.

Dupont and Romain Ntamack had the backline humming in the first half as Les Bleus produced a stunning attacking onslaught.

Those two will still be around in four years time when France host the World Cup, as will winger Damian Penaud who was so dangerous every time he got the ball, beating men on the ground and climbing higher than them in the air.

The building blocks are in place, as Brunel said afterwards: “What they experienced today will give them a lesson. I can see a brighter future for this team.”

Virimi Vakatawa was not even included in France’s training squad at the start of the summer.

The Racing 92 man had not appeared for France since February of last year and his chance to shine in Japan appeared to have passed him by.

He made a promise to his mother at her funeral that he would give his all to make it to the Far East.

Then injury struck for Wesley Fofana to open the door, and the Fijian born star has burst through it in serious style.

Here against Wales he was at the heart of everything the backline did well, scoring a try of his own and creating so much space for others.

His sidestep is well known, he burst onto the scene as a winger after all, but the power that goes with the pace has earned him a place as a midfielder these days.

His swerving running style bamboozled Welsh defenders and even referee Jaco Peyper who got in his way at one point.

The budding partnership with Gael Fickou appears to be bearing fruit, and with Fofana now retired, the 27-year-old looks ready to make up for lost time with a long run in the French midfield.