MARK KEOHANE reports from Auckland on another famous French World Cup win.
For once New Zealanders could appreciate it when a group of French rugby players get that mad look in their eye, defy logic, form and common sense and win a rugby game in which few gave them a chance.
France usually reserves the unexpected for the All Blacks (1999 and 2007) but against a limp England passion and patience was enough of a Saturday night drink to daze England and make them look like the rugby drunks they have been all tournament.
France won 19-12 and could have had more points, but for two missed penalties and two missed conversions. They led 16-0 in a first 40 when England came close to scoring in the last movement of the half but never exerted enough pressure to even win a penalty kick at posts.
The French pack was superior and individually hooker William Servat and No 8 Imanol Harinordoquy were immense, especially in the first hour. Scrumhalf Dimitri Yachvilli played conductor in that period in which France triumped because of bloody mindedness more than brilliance. It was similar to the win against the All Blacks in 2007 because this was a grind in the last quarter, but the two matches don’t rate in comparison.
French captain Thierry Dusautoir said as much afterwards, telling the media that in 2007 France had beaten the best team in the world to advance to the semi-finals, but this was not the case at Eden Park.
England are a poor side. They beat Argentina 13-9 and needed 75 minutes to subdue the Pumas. They then needed a 78th minute try to beat Scotland 16-12 and up until the 78th minute against France they trailed 19-7.
England losing is good riddance. They were diabolical on the night, as they have been all tournament. Coach Martin Johnson thought otherwise and applauded the courage of his team. He felt England were the more creative team and that the difference was France took their limited chances and scored early. England, he said, were always chasing the game and were lacking in composure. But he added this was the England team of the future and that he (as coach) wasn’t planning on going anywhere in a hurry.
England, in 2007, were bad in losing to South Africa 36-0 but upstaged Australia 12-10 in the quarter-final before edging France. In the final they were a poor second to the Boks.
In four years little has been advanced in this England team. The Boks and All Blacks have smashed them by record margins in London, the Wallabies have beaten them in London and Wales, Ireland, Scotland and France have also enjoyed success against a side that has never settled on a pattern of play. Neither has Johnson ever had the conviction to axe those who played with him in the 2003 World Cup success in Australia.
Hero of the 2003 World Cup victory Jonny Wilkinson was among those Johnson refused to give up on, but the once great kicker was a shadow of the player who won England the World Cup with a right footed drop goal. Wilkinson, so plagued by injury in the last five years, kicked at 60 percent at the 2007 World Cup in France and he ended this tournament with the worst goalkicking average of the leading kickers with just 10 from 20.
Johnson subbed him on the hour and he will not play for England again. It was a cruel way for him to go, but there was nothing cruel about the manner of English defeat.
England, on the night, were dire and a Marc Cueto try in the 78th minute added to the illusion this was a close match. It never was. England were never in the game and only referee Steve Walsh’s charity ensured they stayed in the game. Walsh penalised France 11 times in the last hour before finally giving the victors a penalty in the last minute.
England at this World Cup have been a disgrace in the way they behaved and played. The tournament is the richer for their departure. Wales will play France in what should be a magnificent World Cup semi-final match.