There is no doubt the French rugby press would have savaged Bernard Laporte, the soon-to-retire head coach who has presided twice now over losing World Cup semi-finals to England, if Les Bleus had not reached the last four this time with a signal victory over the All Blacks. The prevailing feeling yesterday in Paris was that the redoubtable Rosbifs had deserved their win; not that Laporte was entirely spared criticism for getting suckered into the same conservative gameplan which had done for New Zealand a week before.
"They fell from a great height," read the website headline from the daily sports newspaper, L'Equipe, describing the All Blacks win as a Himalayan peak which France – as historically has been their wont – were unable to scale two Saturdays in a row. Photos of the weeping Sébastien Chabal featured in every paper, the tears of a Caveman not hidden by his long, sweat-matted hair. "With a mixture of disappointment and frustration, and drained of energy, the French players attempted to explain their defeat," the paper wrote.
Yannick Jauzion, the Toulouse centre, went partly on the offensive but admitted France's shortcomings. "We lost two matches in this World Cup [the other was against Argentina] facing teams that do not come out to play. But there must always be a trade-off between the handling game and the kicking game. You have to take your chances when they come. It went well last week but this time we needed to give the ball more air in the second half."
Dimitri Szarzewski, the substitute hooker whose high tackle on Jason Robinson allowed Jonny Wilkinson's penalty to put England in front with six minutes left, was pictured in Le Figaro with the headline "A feeling of underachievement". He said: "It's going to be hard to move on. There will be many regrets. We gave England eight points [including Josh Lewsey's try] and in the end they beat us by five."
A non-stop round of media interviews occupied Laporte yesterday, along with his manager, Jo Maso, and the current and last-but-one captains, Raphaël Ibanez and Fabien Pelous, from an early hour. Also present at the team hotel in the south of Paris was Bernard Lapasset, the chair of the World Cup organising committee who is tipped to be the next chairman of the International Rugby Board.
"The best is yet to come with the final," Lapasset told The Independent. "Alas the French won't be in it.
"This was like the final of the Six Nations: a fight on the field and a great atmosphere among the fans. The French didn't play their best, they lacked confidence compared with the previous week and England were perfect in the second half with a good defence.
"They took their opportunities to score. Jonny Wilkinson was extraordinary. In the last 10 minutes he was the king of the field. On the left, on the right, in front of the French defence he was perfect. Now we have to support England, to support the northern hemisphere."
TF1, France's principal terrestrial television channel, reported its best audience of the year, 18.3 million, during the match. Up to eight million would have watched yesterday's 1pm news bulletin when Ibanez was interviewed by the presenter Claire Chazal, live from the hotel. The news channel iTele had run a half-hour looped "special edition" well past midnight on Saturday, featuring half a dozen French players past and present giving their doleful views, plus a reporter manfully getting some reaction from punters at a London wine bar.
"We didn't play well enough to win," Ibanez said. "Our forwards did a good job, but so did the English and it was tight. In the second half we should have increased the tempo and we couldn't do it."
The hooker said he would leave thoughts of his international retirement until after Friday's third-place match. Whatever happens he will soon be back with his English employers, Wasps, where his club-mate Phil Vickery, England's captain, will be waiting.
"I congratulated Phil as the captain, even if honestly it hurt me a lot," Ibanez told The Independent. "The Wasps won't give me too much banter. I've got a great sense of humour, but not that good.
"England will play the final and if they come back champions it will be a massive boost for the club too. England did well, they did what they had to and after the game it was very quiet in our dressing room. Mark Regan wanted to swap jerseys and I couldn't. It's just a question of pride, I wanted to keep it for my family, especially when you play a World Cup semi-final in your country."
Laporte said he felt sure France would have won if Vincent Clerc had evaded Joe Worsley's tap-tackle late in the game.
When the interviews were done Laporte, who is to become a minister for sport in Nicolas Sarkozy's government, retired briefly to the hotel bar where his wife, Nadine, was waiting patiently. A reassuring kiss followed by a couple more kisses let the coach know all was well on the domestic front, at least.Reuse content