France will travel back to Paris today, not in some Napoleonic-style retreat but as conquering heroes rejoining, as it were, their own World Cup. They will stay in one of the tournament's designated hotels, though they plan to train as normal at their national rugby centre in Marcoussis, a few miles outside the city. The All Blacks are going home too, but theirs is a much longer journey, to the other side of the world and deep into their own souls. Once again their status as firm favourites the pursuit of the Webb Ellis Cup has come to nothing. Four more years, boys, four more years.
After a Millennium Stadium occasion of high drama, France's quarter-final journey to Wales worked out just fine, though the whole experience got almost too surreal at their hotel in the centre of Cardiff yesterday lunchtime. As a pianist tinkled away in the lounge with songs from the shows, Sébastien Chabal, one of the second-half substitutes who drove New Zealand to distraction and the French to victory, attempted to have a quiet drink (soft of course) but was besieged by souvenir hunters. Who would have thought an England-France semi-final would happen, "Seabass"? "No one at all," said Chabal, and a wicked grin crept between his copious whiskers.
But happen it has, and the fallout will range from a consideration of all things northern and southern hemisphere to the magic of individual contributions.
It was only the All Blacks' sixth defeat in 48 matches since the 2003 World Cup. The other five had been to South Africa and Australia. Surely they could not lose to France, albeit the latter are the Six Nations champions? Richie McCaw, the New Zealand captain, had faced the French seven times in his career and won the lot. Only last November the All Blacks smashed Les Bleus out of sight in Lyon and Paris.
The World Cup is different, and don't New Zealand, who have still not won it since 1987, know it. The odds-on shots did not play at all poorly but from the moment the French wing Vincent Clerc flung a defiant hand at Leon MacDonald during a supercharged confrontation at the haka the French showed they were to be no roadkill along the Kiwis' path to glory. France's role as underdogs served them brilliantly in the famous 1999 semi-final win over the All Blacks at Twickenham and it did so again here. The French kicked the ball a lot to begin with, and that was part of the plan. New Zealand kicked a lot too, which was not. Nor was the second-half loss through injury of Dan Carter, the fly-half, and his replacement, Nick Evans. Ouch-la-la.
The statistics afterwards said the All Blacks, in their change silver-grey jerseys, were hugely on top; they had 72 per cent of possession and their line-out went very well. They were undone by France's defensive organisation, which took almost superhuman will to stick to after the impressive early incursions made by Luke McAlister which included a 17th-minute try for New Zealand's Sale-bound centre. France made 178 successful tackles to their opponents' 36, and they were quality tackles which snuffed out the offloads by the All Blacks' forwards. These are the lifeblood of New Zealand's play and without them they look, if not ordinary, then always beatable.
"Our game is to use the ball in the hands," said their coach, Graham Henry, who will step down at the end of the year, it was announced yesterday. "What was done out there by the leaders was the right thing to do."
It was a response to the question of whether New Zealand should have changed their tactics in the second half. France trailed 13-0 after half an hour, but with a couple of penalties by Lionel Beauxis and the tiro fly-half's conversion of a sweeping length-of-the-field try by Thierry Dusautoir they levelled the scores at 13-13 by the 54th minute. Henry's use of the plural in "leaders" may have been designed to deflect criticism from McCaw who, in the week he agreed a two-year contract to stay in New Zealand when many of his team-mates are heading overseas on big-money deals, appeared mute amid the maelstrom. It was a problem magnified by the playmakers, Carter and Evans, going off.
France, by contrast, responded to what might have been a morale-shredding try by Rodney So'oialo, the New Zealand No 8, by sending on Frédéric Michalak as a substitute for Beauxis. Their coach, Bernard Laporte, sensed it was time to gamble – he had already taken off the current and last-but-one captains, Raphaël Ibanez and Fabien Pelous – and it was as brave as an overtaking move in a Monaco Grand Prix.
This was Michalak, remember, the sad scapegoat of the 2003 semi-final loss to England and considered by Laporte himself too flighty to start ahead of the 21-year-old Beauxis here. Within seconds of his arrival Michalak took a pass from Damien Traille – it looked forward but may have been flicked back by an All Black – and raced 30 metres down the left wing. Four years of hurt were accumulated in one heart-stopping sequence as Michalak entered the New Zealand 22, was held in the tackle and hesitated for a split-second which seemed like an hour. He ignored a possible outside pass, swivelled and got the ball inside to Yannick Jauzion, who ran it in. Jean-Baptiste Elissalde converted, France were in the lead for the first time and the roar of their supporters belied that they were outnumbered by Kiwis in the big crowd.
There were 12 minutes remaining but New Zealand had no practical answer. So McCaw joined Gary Whetton (1991), Sean Fitzpatrick (1995), Taine Randell (1999) and Reuben Thorne (2003) in the rogues' gallery of All Black captains unable to land the World Cup. "The guys were ready, we knew the French would be up for it," said McCaw.
"Our easy pool was no excuse. We went out to play our best and the French didn't allow us to."
It is the first time, indeed, that New Zealand have not reached the semi-finals of a World Cup. That prize belongs to France, deservedly so.
New Zealand: L MacDonald (Crusaders); J Rokocoko (Blues), M Muliaina (Chiefs), L McAlister (Blues), S Sivivatu (Chiefs); D Carter (Crusaders), B Kelleher (Chiefs); T Woodcock (Blues), A Oliver (Highlanders), C Hayman (Highlanders), K Robinson (Chiefs), A Williams (Blues), J Collins (Hurricanes), R McCaw (Crusaders, capt), R So'oialo (Hurricanes). Replacements: C Jack (Crusaders) for Robinson, 49; N Evans (Highlanders) for Carter, 56; B Leonard (Chiefs) for Kelleher, 56; A Hore (Hurricanes) for Oliver, 56; C Masoe (Hurricanes) for Collins, 64; I Toeava (Blues) for Evans, 71.
France: D Traille (Biarritz); V Clerc (Toulouse), D Marty (Perpignan), Y Jauzion (Toulouse), C Heymans (Toulouse); L Beauxis (Stade Français), J-B Elissalde (Toulouse); O Milloud (Bourgoin), R Ibanez (Wasps, capt), P de Villiers (Stade Français), F Pelous (Toulouse), J Thion (Biarritz), S Betsen (Biarritz), T Dusautoir (Toulouse), J Bonnaire (Bourgoin). Replacements: I Harinordoquy (Biarritz) for Betsen, 5; J-B Poux (Toulouse) for Milloud, 40; D Szarzewski (Stade Français) for Ibanez, 52; S Chabal (Sale) for Pelous, 52; F Michalak (Toulouse) for Beauxis, 68; C Dominici (Stade Français) for Heymans, 69.
Referee: W Barnes (England).Reuse content