The loyal subjects who thought England's fine recent record in the World Cup – winners in 2003, finalists in 2007 – was a form guide pointing to greatness in this tournament should have paid more attention to last spring's Grand Slam capitulation in Ireland. When Lewis Moody's side came up against better opposition in the shape of France than they had in winning their pool here, they crumbled. Just as they had done in Dublin.
Missed tackles, kicks to nowhere and passes that would have shamed a fifth-former undid England at an Eden Park stadium more accustomed to acclaiming the All Blacks' consistent excellence. France had come into this quarter-final in rottenshape after losing their closing pool match to Tonga but they held a well- deserved 16-point lead by half-time, and were so confident of victory by that stage that they ran out a coupleof minutes before the start of the second half for a jog that looked a lot like a lap of honour.
England were always likely to falter in the last eight if their forwards did not fire. And they certainly did not, instead slipping back into ponderous ways and conceding too many penalties, although when the end came it was with a brief rage against the dying of the light. Ben Foden scored a typically smart try after 54 minutes, and there was another for Mark Cueto a short time before the end. However, Foden has become an emasculated figure at full-back under the regime of Martin Johnson, who only ever theorised rather than delivered in this tournament on a promise to free the back three.
In between England's tries there was an ironic counterpoint that will keep the French and their previously embattled, cantankerous coach, Marc Lièvremont, smiling all week as they prepare to meet Wales back here in the last four. It was a right-footed safety blanket of a dropped goal launched not by Jonny Wilkinson but by France's replacement fly-half, François Trinh-Duc. England's No 10 was sat dejectedly on the sidelines by then having been substituted. It made the score 19-7 to France in the 73rd minute and ensured England would pack their bags today. The Red Rose had won Pool B with four wins, including triumphs over Argentina and Scotland, whereas the French by contrast were runners-up in Pool A after defeats by New Zealand and Tonga.
Johnson had withdrawn the pacy James Haskell and Courtney Lawes from his starting line-up, reasoning perhaps – with past evidence supporting him – that a bullish England pack would frighten the French. In midfield there was no sign of the Queenstown carouser, Mike Tindall, who will return to his newly married life and probably be yearning for a quiet one – life, that is, not another beer. Instead Wilkinson and Toby Flood resumed a 10-12 combination last seen in February 2010, and then only once, when Johnson's preferred inside-centres, Riki Flutey and Shontayne Hape, were unavailable.
It smacked of a corner having been backed into – or rather a cul-de-sac down which Imanol Harinordoquy and the magnificent French back row corralled Wilkinson with no thought of any fraternity due to his hero statusplaying for Toulon. Trailing 6-0 after 20 minutes, England tossed the match away in a calamitous second quarter. It began with Pascal Papé intercepting an English line-out throw, and France returned to the short side with Maxime Mermoz and Morgan Parra feeding Vincent Clerc, the classy Toulouse wing. He finessed past a soft tackle from Wilkinson and then flummoxed Ben Youngs and Foden in one fell swoop to the line; 11-0.
Youngs had kept his place despite playing erratically against Scotland, and continued similarly with a horror pass beyond Wilkinson's hands. Even so, Flood had space to line up a drop goal, but he fluffed it.
With England giving away penalties at a rate of five to one at this stage, France went to touch through Maxime Médard's kick; Thierry Dusautoir peeled off a maul unimpeded, and the French swept to the left with three England defenders – Foden, Manu Tuilagi and the always defensively uncertain Chris Ashton – drawn like moths to Alexis Palisson's flame.
The wing snapped a pass inside to Médard, who trotted over the line. Though Dimitri Yachvili was unable to convert either French try he had credit in the bank from his impressive 45-metre penalty goals after nine and 14 minutes (and one miss on 17 from the same distance) that did a lot to settle France.
Time for a cool English head? Forget it. Flood took over the restart honours from Wilkinson only to dab the ball into a forest of Frenchmen. Next came England's favouriteline-out move (we and the French coaches have seen it umpteen times) but the inside ball from Wilkinson to Cueto was spilt. Then Foden carried a loose ball into touch.
So when Wilkinson's show-and-go gave Nick Easter a gallop and some space to Cueto and Ashton on the left it was bucking a desperate trend. Not for long, though, as a couple of phaseslater Flood tossed a pass towards Cueto and Ashton in the 22 and it bounced off Cueto, who was looking elsewhere.
Youngs's tapped free-kick with support from the 38-year-old Simon Shaw ended with Foden slicing through for England's first try, but as a demonstration of the value of quick ball it was a rarity. By the time Flood's grubber bounced for Cueto to score four minutes from time and Flood failed limply with the conversion, Johnson's mantra that international rugby is principally about "finding a way to win a Test match" had an empty ring.
England B Foden; C Ashton, M Tuilagi, T Flood, M Cueto; J Wilkinson (M Banahan, 64), B Youngs (R Wigglesworth, 64); M Stevens (A Corbisiero, 50), S Thompson (D Hartley, 55), D Cole, L Deacon (S Shaw, 50), T Palmer, T Croft (C Lawes, 46), N Easter, L Moody (capt; J Haskell, 62).
France M Médard; V Clerc, A Rougerie (D Marty, 67), M Mermoz (C Heymans, 68), A Palisson; M Parra, D Yachvili (F Trinh-Duc, 53); J-B Poux (F Barcella, 55), W Servat (D Szarzewski, 55), N Mas, P Papé (J Pierre, 64), L Nallet, T Dusautoir (capt), I Harinordoquy (L Picamoles, 75), J Bonnaire.
Referee S Walsh (Australia).
Tries: Foden, Cueto
Tries: Clerc, Médard
Pens: Yachvili 2
DG: Trinh-DucReuse content