Toby Flood, bruised and battered and a little ashen-faced as he set about dealing with the most painful defeat of his rugby career, thought carefully for a few seconds before making his prediction. "I believe," said the midfielder, "that France will beat Wales and make it through to the final. They'll do what we did in 2007, fly in the face of the evidence early in the tournament and reach the last weekend. I've been on both sides of this now and I think they now have the momentum we had four years ago. It smells the same to me."
The strongest smell following that previous tournament was generated by the Rugby Football Union's treatment of Brian Ashton, the head coach: not in the immediate aftermath, during which the governing body held a review of England's wholly extraordinary World Cup adventure and decided Ashton should continue doing his job, but in the ensuing months, when he was driven from Twickenham by members of the management board in a fashion that still stinks to high heaven.
Old history it may be, but it is relevant history too – not simply because he who ignores history is doomed to repeat it, but because the incident raises the question of what progress, if any, has been made at international level since the bloody spring of '08. Ashton had just a few months, interrupted by a thankless two-Test trip to South Africa that was about as much use to him as a chocolate fireguard, to build his World Cup side, yet that team was still in the tournament when everyone but the Springboks had gone home. By contrast, Martin Johnson had three and a half years, limitless financial support and a degree of access to players beyond the wildest dreams of any previous Red Rose boss in planning this challenge for the Webb Ellis Trophy. The return? A flight back to Blighty, a fortnight earlier than intended.
Perhaps the fact that the Johnson regime was born under a bad star made it inevitable that this campaign would end in abject failure and there were indeed some rugby sibyls and soothsayers who predicted as much. What cannot be disputed is that England have improved very little since Ashton's team put 30 points on Ireland in the final Six Nations game of the coach's tenure. Admittedly, they have certainly pushed the stone a few yards up the hill since Johnson's first autumn series and this is something the manager rarely tires of pointing out, but that is a different argument altogether.
It seemed likely right from the start of this blighted venture that the moment England met a good side playing well, they would lose. So it came to pass. Their two meaningful victories in the pool stage, over Argentina and Scotland, had been against sides without a really high-calibre back between them, although Felipe Contepomi, the Pumas' captain, was certainly one during his prime. France? They had Vincent Clerc, Aurélien Rougerie and the two Maximes, the full-back Médard and the centre Mermoz. They also had a game manager in Dimitri Yachvili who, when the force is with him, makes the vast majority of his rival Test scrum-halves look like timewasters.
Together with the magnificent Basque No 8 Imanol Harinordoquy, his Biarritz clubmate, Yachvili ran the show with his mixed bag of box-kicks and short-side snipes, his mastery of tempo – some of his rugby was fast, some of it slow, but all of it was the product of a lightning-quick mind – and his driving of the forward pack to heights that had seemed unattainable during a pool stage that saw Les Bleus lose twice and struggle to beat Japan. The half-back did everything in his power to prepare the ground for one of Harinordoquy's great performances, and he was rewarded with a rich yield.
These were the two men at the centre of the French camp's week-long build-up from hell: the men who, with the head coach Marc Lièvremont being publicly criticised by his players for publicly criticising his players (only the French can do this!) and the eerily quiet captain Thierry Dusautoir seemingly marginalised, emerged as the new leaders of the group. As it turned out, Lièvremont was able to offer an Ashton-like justification of his approach to this game – "I have always said that while I am present for the players, I cannot play the game for them because they, not me, are the ones on the field," he remarked – while Dusautoir rediscovered the best of himself and inflicted it upon his "favourite" opponents.
Johnson felt, rightly, that the French won the tactical kicking game, the aerial game and the chasing game. He also accepted that England's defence was woefully out of kilter when Clerc and Médard scored the left-corner tries that underpinned their side's 16-point interval lead – an advantage that the former champions reduced significantly during a more competitive second period but rarely threatened to eliminate, despite the best efforts of the youngest and most recent addition to the side, Manu Tuilagi, who was pretty much alone in deserving better than an early return to Heathrow.
It was, therefore, time for an appearance from Mike Ford, the defence coach, and he duly surfaced as the players, who had sat silently in the dressing room for minutes on end, slowly dragged themselves to their feet and headed for the team bus. Ford immediately mounted a fierce defence of Johnson's managership. "He's creating a culture and it can't be done overnight," he said, conveniently forgetting that the number of nights had long since passed into four figures. "You have to keep him at the helm: he's grown so much, I don't think he can be replaced. The RFU can't just go and appoint someone new yet again: it will be back to 'step A' and you'll have the usual honeymoon period before all the judgements start flying around. And besides, where do they find another guy with his experience?"
Ford denied the coaches were too intrusive, too dictatorial – "We're constantly asking ourselves if we're cramping the players' style and stopping them playing it their own way, and we honestly don't think we are" – but it is difficult to imagine Johnson, the forwards coach John Wells and the attack coach Brian Smith doing a collective Lièvremont and simply allowing their senior personnel to crack on with it whatever way they see fit. England seem to play their rugby by numbers, especially when compared with the likes of New Zealand and Wales.
It was Flood, so often the most articulate analyser of Red Rose matters, who nailed the truth of it. "France were smart and they out-thought us," he admitted. "We were chasing our tails in the first half and I think it's important we realise that in these games, we have to engage our brains. We have to learn. We can't sit here behind a veil, saying everything is OK and that we did some nice things. Ultimately, the scoreboard doesn't lie." Johnson would surely agree with the last comment, but he must also accept that it is almost too easy for players with the highly-developed instincts of a Yachvili or a Harinordoquy to out-think rivals who are not encouraged to think for themselves.
The manager may stay, he may not: quite correctly, he judged that an after-match media conference was neither the time nor the place – and certainly not populated by the right people – to enter into a discussion about his future plans. But if he is retained for the next World Cup cycle, he will have to change not just his methods, but his mindset.
Scorers: France: Tries Clerc, Médard; Penalties Yachvili 2; Drop goal Trinh-Duc. England: Tries Foden, Cueto; Conversion Wilkinson.
France: M Médard; V Clerc, A Rougerie (D Marty, 75), M Mermoz (C Heymans, 91), A Palisson; M Parra, D Yachvili (F Trinh-Duc, 57); J-B Poux (F Barcella, 59), W Servat (D Szarzewski, 59), N Mas, P Pape (J Pierre, 70), L Nallet, T Dusautoir (capt), J Bonnaire, I Harinordoquy (L Picamoles, 81).
England: B Foden; C Ashton, M Tuilagi, T Flood, M Cueto; J Wilkinson (M Banahan, 70), B Youngs (R Wigglesworth, 70); M Stevens (A Corbisiero, 52), S Thompson (D Hartley, 59), D Cole (Stevens, 68), L Deacon (S Shaw, 52), T Palmer, T Croft (C Lawes, 47), L Moody (capt, J Haskell, 68), N Easter.
Referee S Walsh (Australia).
England squad: Man-for-man verdicts
By Chris Hewett
Ben Foden Too quiet for too long, although there was an upturn in attacking performance against France. His defensive work under pressure was unconvincing. 5/10
Chris Ashton A genuine one-off who scored tries for fun against the weaker opposition. Not the most disciplined off the field, sadly. 6
Delon Armitage Perhaps the most impressive of the back-three brigade, but once again, he ended up answering for his actions at a disciplinary tribunal. 7
Mark Cueto Had his frustrations with injury and, while he enjoyed his hat-trick of tries against Romania, he found Armitage a tough rival. 6
Matt Banahan He may be big, but size alone butters few parsnips at World Cup level. Not much opportunity, not much of a contribution. 3.5
Manu Tuilagi A significant discovery. Defended with extreme prejudice, while his attacking in heavily populated areas of the field was something to behold. 8
Mike Tindall The least said the better. His poor performances on the field were overshadowed by an equally poor performance in the bars of Queenstown. 1
Shontayne Hape When push came to shove, Martin Johnson was not as fond of Hape as he liked to pretend. Nothing more than a bit-part actor. 3.5
Jonny Wilkinson The powers are diminishing fast. One brilliant drop goal saved England's bacon against the Scots, but otherwise he was surprisingly poor. 4
Toby Flood More ideas in his left earlobe than the rest of the inside backs put together. Not used as well as he should have been. 6.5
Ben Youngs The button-bright youngster who illuminated last year's autumn series seems to be playing in the darkness these days. Too inaccurate for words. 4
Richard Wigglesworth He is nowhere near as dynamic as Youngs, but was less of a liability when the pressure was on around the tackle area. An intelligent player. 6.5
Joe Simpson Uncapped when he came here, barely capped now he's gone. We can only hope the youngster found the experience enriching. 5
Andrew Sheridan It was good to see him back for the Pumas match and sad to see him go straight afterwards. May be lost to Test rugby for good. 5
Matt Stevens One of the more law-abiding props, he somehow put himself on the wrong side of one official after another. Expensive in penalty terms. 4
Alex Corbisiero He certainly has something about him. Generally used off the bench, he understood what it took to be an "impact" player. Encouraging. 6.5
Steve Thompson The 2003 veteran was an important figure – and not just during the anthem, which he sang with alarming gusto. Past his best, but committed. 6.5
Dylan Hartley An early disciplinary issue in Dunedin, the loss of his starting place to Thompson... it was not the happiest of returns to his homeland. 4.5
Lee Mears Another of the "what am I actually doing here?" contingent. Technically accomplished but barely given a chance to show it. 4.5
Dan Cole Referees had their issues with him, but all things considered he was the best front-rower. Not a great leap forward, but a biggish one. 7
David Wilson Spent an awful lot of time watching rugby, which he could have done without leaving his house. Was barely called on. 5
Louis Deacon The archetypal Leicester lock: hard as nails, ruthless, not terribly quick. No complaints with performances in pool stage. 6
Simon Shaw It was quite an achievement for him to make the tournament as a late-thirtysomething, but the selection said something about youth policy. 5
Tom Palmer The France-based player had only one rough game – against the French, and his friend Pascal Pape. A modern lock with classy touches. 6.5
Courtney Lawes The first player to land in the smelly stuff on the field, he was not at his destructive best after returning from suspension. 4.5
Tom Croft One or two reasonable performances in the pool stage. In the quarter-final, he was nowhere near as effective. 4.5
Tom Wood A quality player who failed to nail down the starting place he craved. Too good to be left out as often as he was. 5
Lewis Moody The captain was prepared to play in pieces and he did his best to conceal a lack of fitness from good-quality opponents. 6.5
James Haskell Suddenly, he walks the walk as well as he talks the talk. One of the successes of the English pack despite his dropping for the quarter-final. 7
Nick Easter You know your luck is out when you run into the world's best No 8 in the first game and then cop Imanol Harinordoquy on one of his vintage days. 5
Thomas Waldrom He probably had a very nice time indeed, holding tackle bags for his supposed superiors and drinking coffee. A pointless visit. 5Reuse content