How could France, fickle, temperamental, disjointed France, knock out the World Cup favourites, and the greatest rugby nation on earth, in 30 spell-binding minutes, obliterating a 14-point deficit by scoring 33 points without reply?
Raphael Ibanez, the captain of France, had at least part of the answer when he was asked what his team were doing in a huddle immediately after the All-Blacks had finished their Maori war-dance, the Haka.
"We knew we had to prepare for war," the veteran hooker said. "Some soldiers sing songs before going to war, we grouped together and sang "La Marseillaise."
The French may have been prepared for a battle, but the All-Blacks were not. They were all grey and shades in between. "From time to time the All-Blacks lose," Jean Claude Skrela, the French coach, said. "Maybe France knew how to win today."
He was right on both counts. But never, since William Webb Ellis ran with a ball, have New Zealand suffered a blitz on this scale.
In 1986, France bludgeoned the All-Blacks into submission in a Test in Nantes, where a number of New Zealand's finest were, literally, left counting their testicles. But this was something else altogether.
The Tricolores' forwards - Ibanez had led them to a 54-7 slaughter by the All-Blacks in Wellington only four months ago - at first neutralised the New Zealand eight and then destroyed them.
Abdelatif Benazzi, a mountain of a man from Morocco, scaled the peaks, but he was by no means alone. Olivier Magne was magnificent in a back- row that was as effective in defence as attack.
Outside them the little scrum-half Fabien Galthie, who was not even included in the original World Cup squad, was immense in almost everything he did and his partner, the stand-off Christophe Lamaison, who had joined the party in place of the injured Thomas Castaignede, scored 28 points, including a delightful try which exposed the alarming vulnerability of the All-Blacks' defence. Then there was the diminutive figure of Christophe Dominici who, in his own inimitable way, was almost as formidable as Jonah Lomu.
France, who were by no means at full-strength, scored four tries to three, yet when Lomu added a second try four minutes into the second half following another phenomenal effort in the 23rd minute, it looked for all the World Cup as if France were being prepared for the guillotine.
At that point, the French defence looked about as impregnable as the Maginot Line. Lomu went through half the French team for his first try (this can now be called Lomu Corner at Twickenham as it was almost in the identical place to where he scored his memorable try against England here earlier in the month) but for his second the blue jerseys parted like the Red Sea.
The All-Blacks led 24-10 and everybody sat back, waiting for them to pile on the agony. Yet it was they who lost their heads as the tumbrils rolled relentlessly forward.
The All-Blacks leave nothing to chance - their advertising team is Saatchi & Saatchi for goodness sake - but, nevertheless, they gave the distinct impression that they were looking forward to meeting Australia in the final at the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff on Saturday. Instead, they find themselves embroiled in a dog-fight with South Africa in Cardiff on Thursday to decide third and fourth place. Should they win that they will avoid the ignominy of having to qualify for the next World Cup in Australia in four years' time. There is, however, no avoiding this ignominy.
When Rod Macqueen, the Wallabies' coach, was asked on Saturday, after his side's victory over the Springboks in the first semi-final, did he expect to play New Zealand in the final, he replied: "Definitely."
"We let ourselves down, we let our fans down," John Hart, the New Zealand coach, said. "We're devastated. We're still a young team and we will get better, but that is not an excuse. With a lead of 24-10, there is no way you should lose that gain. The coach is accountable and I take full responsibility. If Australia had led 24-10 they would not have allowed that opportunity to go begging."
Even so, Hart added: "The two best teams got through to the final."
When Jim Fleming, the Scottish referee who had almost blown France off the pitch in the first half with a stream of penalty awards to New Zealand, signalled the end, the French players embraced, some of them rolling on the turf in celebration of one of their country's most famous sporting achievements. As the All-Blacks trooped disconsolately off the field, Ibanez stood in the middle of the stadium waving the French flag as, at a conservative estimate, 30,000 of his fellow countrymen and women, broke into song.
One of the oddest aspects of this result is that Lomu, despite his two tries, was brought into play by the All-Blacks only intermittently. "I've learned from past experience that you never allow your guard down against the French," the wing, who has scored eight tries in the tournament, said.
It is arguable that, but for a New Zealander, the referee Paddy O'Brien, whether the French would ever have got this far. But for some dreadful decisions in Toulouse two weeks ago, Fiji would probably have beaten France to finish top of Pool C.
THE TRY THAT BROKE THE ALL BLACKS
NEW ZEALAND may have been on the back foot as the clock ticked round to the hour mark, but they were only five points adrift at 24-29 and very much in the contest, writes Chris Hewett. Then came the hammer blow, a try from Richard Dourthe that ended the All Blacks' World Cup dream.
Christophe Lamaison's punt towards the right corner gave the Tricolores a line-out within striking range of the All Black goal-line. The French jumpers had ruled the roost for much of the game and when Olivier Brouzet, a first-half replacement for the injured Christophe Juillet, took a catch in the middle, his fellow tight forwards locked around him and drove the maul deep into enemy territory.
The ball was protected perfectly and Christophe Lamaison, receiving quality possession from Fabien Galthie, had time and space to chip over a spreadeagled All Black defence. Dourthe read Lamaison's intentions and sprinted past his flat-footed opponents for the touchdown. Lamaison converted and the French were 12 points - at least two scores - ahead going into the final quarter.Reuse content