In a game that was at turns infuriating and dull, France eked out a 9-8 victory over Wales in one of the least entertaining Rugby World Cup semifinals of all time.
France won the game thanks to three penalties from Morgan Parra, but being up a man for three-quarters of the game after Welsh captain Sam Warburton was red carded, they could have gone for much more. Despite having the ascendancy in the scrum and winning more than their share of Welsh lineouts, the French opted not to surge through the forwards nor use their excellent backs. They simply kicked and hoped to hold onto their lead.
They almost failed. Wales missed three kicks by a hair - one each from James Hook, Stephen Jones and Leigh Halfpenny - any one of which would have won the game for them. And despite being a man down, Wales twice had a massive overlap on the left, and sent no pass to a backline certainly capable of finishing.
In the end, Wales tried a concerted effort to run the ball once, and scored a try.
Wales, despite having Warburton sent off in the 18th minute, were in sight of the winning points with the clock running down. France were forced to defend in their own half for 27 phases without giving their desperate opponents the chance to sneak through.
Wales were repeatedly driven back in the tackle, their kickers were pushed out of drop-goal range and their hopes of a remarkable comeback were snuffed out.
"We did not start well, we lost confidence," France coach Marc Lièvremont said after the match. "When they went down to 14 and we had 15 we were still inhibited, but that does not matter; what matters is when they scored a try, we kept out composure.
"I will not brood or be unhappy because that was not our best match, what matters is we are going to the final."
The match swung firmly in France's favor between the 10th and 18th minutes. First, Welsh prop Adam Jones was forced off with an injured ankle, then Warburton was sent off for a dump tackle on France wing Vincent Clerc. Referee Alain Rolland of Ireland had no choice. IRB guidelines tell referees that a tackle who tips the ballcarrier past horizontal and dumps him, or drops him, on his neck or head must get a red card. That's what Warburton did, and he had to go.
It meant that Warren Gatland's team was forced to play for more than an hour with 14 men, and while they fought back in the second half through a Mike Phillips try, when the crunch came Wales did not have quite enough energy left to find a way through the French defence for a second time.
Warburton said he was surprised by his red card. "It felt that as soon as I hit him his body weight took control of what happened. I went to compete for the ball, thinking it was a normal tackle. The next thing I know I'm walking off into the stands. All the boys are gutted with the result but I thought the courage and bravery they showed was second to none."
Parra's display, if not quite a full vindication of Lièvremont's decision to continue with the scrum half at fly half, was enough to win the match for France.
Crucially he kicked the opening points of the second half in the 50th minute to give France a six-point lead.
His successes contrasted sharply with his Welsh counterpart James Hook, who was given the nod over veteran Stephen Jones when first-choice fly half Rhys Priestland was forced out with a shoulder injury.
Hook was on the mark with his first from out on the left touchline to open the scoring, but he missed two more direct kicks later in the first half that would have put Wales in front at halftime.
Eventually Gatland brought Stephen Jones on in the 46th minute and his cool head allowed Wales to grab a toehold as the match went into its closing stages.
"Parra was magnificent and defensively courageous," Lièvremont said. "He is the player who created the most breaks and he was successful with all his kicks."
But it was running with the ball where Wales looked strong, especially thanks to Halfpenny at fullback, Jamie Roberts at center, and No. 8 Toby Faletau. When Phillips dummied his way through the French line to score, Wales were within one. But Jones's difficult conversion grazed the outside of the post. Later Wales seemed content to go for a drop goal, but the attempt from Jones was a poor one.
Finally the Welsh got a penalty, in front of the posts but 50 meters out. Halfpenny's effort was straight, but perhaps a foot short.
France flanker Julien Bonnaire became the second France back row named man of the match in consecutive weeks after number 8 Imanol Harinordoquy received the accolade in the quarter-final victory over England.
Bonnaire's athleticism meant that he was able to steal five Wales lineouts and relieve pressure on the France line just as the Welsh were gaining momentum.
"I am happy that we won, but I am disappointed with the level we played and the defence saved us tonight," Bonnaire said.
"Our World Cup hasn't been so great and we let a lot of people down here and at home, but I hope we made up for that by reaching the final."
France will now play their second Rugby World Cup final at Eden Park, having lost the inaugural final in 1987 to New Zealand.
That match ended in anticlimax for Les Bleus after they had beaten Australia in the semi-finals. Twenty-four years on they know they cannot repeat such a flat attacking performance if they want to win the Webb Ellis Cup at the third time of asking.
"I think we had a guardian angel tonight," Lièvremont said. "I think there are a lot of people annoyed that we have qualified, but we played with our hearts."
Pens: Parra 3