England's rugby union establishment can massage an ignominious ejection from the World Cup here in Auckland yesterday any way it likes, but sooner or later a rather shocking reality will have to be faced.
It is that this was much more than an ultimately one-score defeat by a French team which not only survived in the old Last Chance Saloon but came vibrantly alive with some of the best of their classic qualities: beautiful ball-handling, intricate, poised running and some flashes of imagination that left England desperately playing another deeply inferior game.
No, the most wounding problem was not the loss of a quarter-final to a French team whose anarchic tendencies had left coach Marc Lièvremont in despair after defeat by Tonga in the final pool game. What has to be recognised at Twickenham headquarters is that this was an entire campaign simply unfit for purpose, and that no amount of camouflage, including a 12-3 scoring edge in the second half that never truly threatened the authority achieved by France in the early, decisive going, can disguise the fact.
The underlying significance of a string of disciplinary problems, culminating in the embarrassment of having two senior coaches suspended for last week's vital game with Scotland after being caught in attempted sharp practice, became more apparent with each piece of accumulating evidence that thiswas a team that lacked almost all the crucial elements that madetheir predecessors champions andrunners-up respectively in the previous two World Cups.
The most profound difference between France and England was that the French remembered, just in time, what had made them the kind of team capable of bringing down the favourites New Zealand in 1999 and 2007, while England jettisoned almost entirely the qualities that enabled them to eject their opponents in two successive semi-finals, the second triumph coming four years ago in a Stade de France eager to celebrate the most recent triumph over the All Blacks. England won that game, and claimed the World Cup four years earlier in Australia, by a measured exploitation of their particular strengths – power up front and a willingness to patiently build pressure through field position.
At Eden Park yesterday therewas something almost manic about England as they fired long bullet passes that often finished on the ground. Perhaps they calculated that their only true threat to the French lay in the powerful runs of young Manu Tuilagi, who was certainlythe only England player to burnish his reputation.
Maybe it was evidence of sheer panic as the French, magnificently inspired by their veteran No 8 and lifelong Anglophobe, Imanol Harinordoquy, quickly made it clear that fears for their psychological and emotional balance may have been somewhat overstated. Whatever the cause, the result was devastating to any belief in England's ability to climb out of the tournament-long sensethat they were a team who hadneither a plan nor the beginnings of a dominant personality.
Once again the early penalty count rocketed like a disturbingly erratic pulse rate, allowing Dimitri Yachvili to fire France into a six-point lead, and if Harinordoquy has said some hurtful things about English arrogance almost from the moment he first pulled on a blue shirt, the effect has been nothing compared with the impact of his almost immediate announcement that he was about to have one of his more unforgettable games. At one point he needed medical attention, but you couldn't help thinking a visit from metal riveters might have been more appropriate.
England never began to produce a figure of such fire or authority, and you could imagine the despair this brought to the national manager, Martin Johnson.
One of the greatest on-field motivators the English game, or any other, has ever seen, Johnson said later that he would not be making any announcement, or doing much self-appraisal, for a few days, but it was hard to believe that his future is not even now being assessed.
The worrying question, though, is assessed by whom – presumably the same people who have reigned over an organisational meltdown at the Rugby Football Union and who,along the way, have squandered the brilliant work of Sir Clive Woodward when he first whipped Englandinto front-line challengers to the stranglehold exerted by the southernhemisphere.
Also hard to avoid is the fact that at this World Cup a fine young Welsh team, under the New Zealander Warren Gatland, have outstripped England, who boast a vastly larger player population, in every aspect of the game and especially in tactics, discipline and aggressive imagination.
Yesterday's Welsh triumph over an experienced Irish team that had brought down Australia in the group action was the announcement of a rugby nation on the move. England, by way of the most damaging comparison, were as bad as the former World Cup-winning All Blacks captain Wayne Shelford had predicted.
The great No 8 said that England over the years had been placed in a tactical straitjacket. They had lost the power to improvise, unlike the French, or cleanly inflict their power, like the swiftly rising Welsh. Shelford had said France and Wales would go through, and he was proved right. Maybe Twickenham should have a word. Plainly, he knows something they don't.