Rugby World Cup 2011
Welsh RWC dream dies
Wales fans (AFP Photo)
Cardiff - More than 60 000 Welsh rugby fans gathered in the Millenium Stadium on Saturday were left in agony and despair as their heroes missed out on a spot in the Rugby World Cup final by the narrowest of margins.
61,543 flooded into the cathedral of Welsh rugby in the heart of the capital Cardiff, a crowd to rival the one watching the action live at Eden Park in Auckland, where France won the semi-final 9-8.
But they were left with a bittersweet mixture of pride in their side's performance and the pain of having got so close to making it to their first final in the national sport.
The 74 500-seater Millennium Stadium opened its gates for free at 08:00, an hour before the kick-off in New Zealand.
The organisers of "Wake up for Wales" had been overwhelmed by the response, thinking that if 25 000 turned up at that time on a Saturday morning it would have been an achievement.
They rose at dawn in the suburbs of Cardiff and the south Wales valleys, and were soon streaming into the city centre, filling the streets at 7:00am, tucking into bacon rolls and supping some early pints to get in the mood for one of the biggest events in Welsh sporting history.
It was a once-in-a-generation opportunity to cheer on Wales in a Rugby World Cup semi-final.
The only other time the rugby-mad principality had reached the last four was in 1987, when they lost to hosts New Zealand.
French rugby fans were thin on the ground amid the sea of red swarming through the streets of Cardiff. A group of exchange students gave a full rendition of "La Marseillaise" outside the main gate, wearing berets and waving a baguette.
The Millenium Stadium had everything except live rugby. Even the match programme from Eden Park was being sold to make the experience as real as possible.
The pre-match downpour in Auckland would have posed no problems in Cardiff -- the retractable roof was on, making the cheers echo around the stadium.
Filling the pitch, fand booted giant blow-up rugby balls in the air, while many wore big daffodils on their heads, and even sheep outfits as excitement overcame any sleepiness.
The crowd were warmed up by a specially-recorded message from Wales captain Sam Warburton before the big screens switched to live action from Eden Park.
There was a giant roar at the first sight of the Welsh team, huddled in a circle before taking to the pitch.
Despite the early hour, the booze was as free-flowing as the rugby, though some fans had a pint in one hand, a coffee in the other.
"La Marseillaise" was given respectful applause, before Wales' West End star Sophie Evans, backed by male voice choir Only Men Aloud, led the crowd through an impassioned rendition of the Welsh national anthem, "Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau" ("Land of My Fathers").
The sound was deafening as the song hit the chorus, opening with Gwlad, gwlad, pleidol wyf i'm glwlad ("Nation, nation, true am I to my nation") and ending on "O bydded i'r hen iaith barhau" ("O may our old language endure").
Huge cheers erupted when fly-half James Hook opened the scoring for Wales with an early penalty.
But disbelief and outrage soon followed when talisman Warburton was sent off for a dangerous tackle with less than a quarter of the match gone.
Boos rang out when France levelled the scores, but after two missed Hook penalties, there was silence as "Les Bleus" kicked themselves into a 6-3 lead.
Only Men Aloud kept the spirits up at half-time, but with the tide turning as France went 9-3 up, the match seemed to be slipping away from Wales.
However, the Millennium Stadium erupted as scrum-half Mike Phillips broke through the French lines to score a try, with fans screaming and bouncing up and down with unabashed joy.
The spirited Welsh surge in the second half had the crowd on the edge of their seats, roaring them on as the men in red battled to find a way through to the French try line.
With just minutes left, wing Leigh Halfpenny's giant penalty kick from the half-way line went inches under the bar, triggering despair from the masses on the hallowed Welsh turf.
There was silence again at the final whistle, followed by applause for a well-fought effort before the reality of a whole day to dwell on what might have been kicked in.