Warren Gatland has paid tribute to his team’s gritty character after admitting Wales are fortunate to still be in the World Cup.
The Wales coach candidly admitted that the better team lost the semi-final in Oita, where France were beaten 20-19.
Ross Moriarty scored the vital try that enabled Wales to snatch a late victory, even though they had failed for so long to make a one-man advantage tell after Sebastien Vahaamahina was sent off for elbowing Aaron Wainwright.
France also spurned five points by missing two easy kicks at goal.
Gatland also drew an accurate parallel with 2011, when Wales were the team that reduced to 14 men after the dismissal of Sam Warburton, and France went on to win a one-point game, 9-8.
“The thing I’m proud about is that these guys never give in,” said Gatland whose team will now play South Africa in the semi-final.
“They just kept waiting for an opportunity to come their way. We had a big scrum near the end of the game and it was a fantastic rip by Tomos Williams.
“It was a one-point victory – similar, but the other way to the semi-final in 2011 when we had the red card and lost by a point.
“It was not the prettiest, but there was some great character shown. Losing becomes a habit and so does winning. We are in that winning habit at the moment.
“When you go through an ugly World Cup, there will always be one ugly performance that’s not on top of the world.
“We’re still her, although we have a lot of work to do before next week.
Wales were within six minutes of going out and France looked like holding out for a famous victory, until Moriarty popped up and over the line after a powerful Welsh scrum.
Making up for his earlier yellow card indiscretion, the replacement forward bulldozed before Dan Biggar kicked the conversion that broke French hearts.
Up to that point, Wales had appeared unlikely to make up a six-point deficit as they repeatedly turned over possession regularly failed to get any fluency into their attacking game,
Gatland confessed: “I think the better team lost today.
“But the thing about our boys is they don’t give up, they keep trying until the end. We kept working away.
“France came out of the blocks well. At half-time we just said we’ve got to score next, we did that and obviously the red card was the turning point. It was pretty special.
“They did go hard, lots of big men, big runners and they got some go-forwards. Tactically, I thought they were really smart today.
“We just hung in there and showed some real character. I’m proud of the boys because I think lesser teams would have capitulated but we didn’t do that.
“We’ll just go back, recover today and travel to Tokyo tomorrow. I don’t think we’ve got too many injuries, maybe a hamstring with Josh Navidi. We’ll probably have a quiet night tonight.”
Vahaamahina had stunned Wales by bundling over from a lineout after just five minutes before France scored one of the tries of the tournament.
Roared on by chants of “Allez, Les Bleus!” flanker Charles Ollivon stormed through to complete a sweeping move involving Virimi Vakatawa, Romain Ntamack and scrum half Antoine Dupont.
Back came Wales in an electrifying opening 12 minutes as flanker Wainwright pounced on a loose ruck on halfway to race clear for his first test try.
Biggar slotted a penalty to bring the Six Nations champions to within two points.
But when a high tackle from Moriarty on Gael Fickou resulted in a yellow card, France made Wales pay as Damian Penaud released Vakatawa to grab France’s third try on the half-hour mark.
French playmaker Ntamack struck the post with a penalty just before the break but the pendulum swung toward Wales after Vahaamahina’s rush of blood.
Caught on camera recklessly swinging his elbow flush into Wainwright’s face, it was only ever going to result in a red card.
His dismissal came as an ironic twist as Warburton received an early red card for a dangerous tip tackle on Vincent Clerc in that 2011 semi-final in Auckland.
Gatland added: “I’m relieved. In fairness to France, they played exceptionally well. Their game plan was pretty simple, but it was effective.
“They had big men coming off nine and hitting the gain-line. They had a couple of early tries and then we got back into it a little bit.
“The message at half-time was that we had to score next. We were able to do that and the red card was obviously pretty significant.
“We saw in 2011 how having a player sent off can lift a team. We had a player sent off after 17 minutes in 2011.
“France have definitely improved since the Six Nations and they had some good structure today. They are a good team, with some quality players and they have a strength in depth in France.
“But we’ll take the win – even though it was a little but ugly. The biggest thing is that we don’t go home tomorrow. We are here for another two weeks.
“We need to get our recovery right and be as professional as we can be in recovery before next week.”