Column One: So what will the French do for an encore?

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IN A blaze of gloire, France brought the spluttering Rugby World Cup to life at Twickenham yesterday with a tumultuous semi-final victory over New Zealand, writing a dazzling page in the game's history as they eliminated the tournament favourites.

Never mind we confirmed Francophiles, with our Johnny Hallyday CDs, our unswerving loyalty to Catherine Deneuve and our addictions to pastis and the perfume of Provencal lavender fields. We revelled in it, of course.

But anyone who ever bought a bottle of duty-free plonk at a Boulogne supermarket on a rainy Tuesday in March would have thrilled to the sight of the men in blue shirts coming from behind to overwhelm the mighty All Blacks by 43 points to 31 and earn a meeting with Australia in the final on Saturday.

The rebuilt Twickenham had never seen anything like it, the noise and excitement from a full house confirming the belief that all you needed to stage a really enthralling rugby match in this stadium was to make sure England had no part in it.

Their absence sent the corporate hospitality business into a severe decline but it worked a miracle on the atmosphere. Fat cats were replaced by fans, and the place hummed with the joy of the occasion.

France had come into the tournament in their usual state of psychological disarray, the coaching team under fire and the players at odds with each other. But having watched the collapse of England's self-confidence and the departure of Wales, the hosts, they were clearly determined to ensure that Europe would have a representative in Saturday's final.

Not even Jonah Lomu could scare them off. Five minutes into the second half, New Zealand were leading by 24-10 and appeared to be strolling home. The 19st, 6ft 5in left wing had just scored his second try of the match and was looking good for two or three more.

But he and his colleagues were foiled by a brave and passionate comeback, ignited by France's left wing, Christophe Dominici, who looked no more than half Lomu's size but, in the end, had twice the impact.

In a year of remarkable sporting finishes, here was the most unexpected of victories for the most enchanting of underdogs. And what, now, will they do for an encore?