AUCKLAND – France was predictably unpredictable at its quarterfinal match played against England at Eden Park in front of 49,105 fans on October 8 at the Rugby World Cup, winning 19-12 after a spectacular first half performance that made Les Bleus lead 16-0 at halftime.
“I thought when we had the ball we looked OK, and we had chances in the first half. That just kills me, 16-0.” – said England head coach Martin Johnson. – “The guys were still confident they could do something in the second half, but you make it too hard for yourself at 16-0.”
France, notorious of rhapsodic performances at international tournaments, put in a poor performance at the pool stages, playing its second string team and losing 17-37 against the All Blacks on 24 September at the same venue, and going down 14-19 a week later against Tonga at Wellington Regional Stadium, prompting comments of bitterness and resignation from head coach Marc Lievremont.
On Saturday, it was a different French team. With well organized attack and solid defense in place, the team’s attitude was definitely a winning one, in stark contrast with England, struggling with ball handling errors and lack of concentration.
“Everyone was fully in the match and knew what he had to do. This is what gave us the victory against England tonight.” – said France number 8 Imanol Harinordoquy. -“We spent the whole week looking ahead. We knew we could decide our fate; choose between going home and continuing to play in this World Cup. There were times tonight where we even showed some good rugby.”
Scoring for France came early on with French scrum half Dimitri Yachvili placing two penalty kicks from pressure applied on England in the eleventh and sixteenth minutes in quick succession, while French half-back Morgan Parra failed to place a rushed drop goal between the two.
French right wing Vincent Clerc placed France’s first, brilliantly executed try in the 22nd minute, capitalizing on poor English defense that Yachvili failed to convert. Nine minutes later, French full back Maxime Medard landed France’s second try, set up by Parra spreading the ball wide to French wing Alexis Palisson who handed down the ball to Medard through unorganized penetrating English defense. Yachvili missed the conversion. While England tried to apply pressure in the final minutes of the first half, it all went to waste due to handling errors and a miserably failed attempt at drop goal by inside centre Toby Flood, sending the unfocused English team to half time with zero points against France’s 16.
The second half, England tried to restructure, while France’s game became less focused, however it was too little too late for the Pool B champions to dominate the Pool A runner-ups. England ran in two tries in the second half, full back Ben Foden placing one in the 55th and wing Mark Cueto in the 77th, and while fly half Johnny Wilkinson converted the first one, Flood failed to convert the second one, sealing the fate of England. French replacement fly-half Francois Trinh-Duc solidified France’s place in the semifinals with a clinically executed drop goal seven minutes before full time.
“It’s true that we had a great start. But we still managed to miss a few opportunities that would have given us even more points and that would have pushed them to commit fouls. But the most positive thing to remember tonight is that we have given our answer on the field.” -said Parra. – “Losing against Tonga was pretty useful. That match was a reality check. It pushed us to react. Our World Cup has started tonight.”
France booked a semifinal rendez-vous with Wales, that beat Ireland 22-10 at Wellington Regional Stadium earlier on Saturday, for October 15 at Eden Park.