- 7 Oct 07, 10:48 AM
Christchur-... I mean Cardiff - Well, well. So lightning does strike twice. And sometimes on the same day.
Not many of us thought France could emulate England’s shock result against Australia and beat the mighty Kiwis. (I have to confess I wrote the first take of this intro about lunchtime and it looked very different.)
Even fewer thought Les Bleus could surge from behind and pull off, if not quite a 1999-esque comeback, then a very good second best.
On a remarkable night in the Millennium Stadium, France again showed that it’s not about what colour shirt you wear, or how many fans you have, or even how you’ve been the world’s best side for the last few years and therefore have a right to win the World Cup because you haven’t won one since 1987.
It’s about belief and passion and spirit. Yes, you need muscles and you need flyers, but all teams have those to some extent. It’s the extra, unquantifiable bit that makes all the difference.
"This New Zealand team is much better than in 1999 so it can’t happen again", they said. "France are out of their depth this time around", they said.
The massed ranks of black-shirted Kiwis came to conquer. They took over the bars of Cardiff before the game and cheered on England as if they were New Zealand B, sensing a sleigh ride through to the final once they had dusted up France.
The pockets of vastly outnumbered Frenchmen were shy at first, but, roused by England’s heroics in Marseille, they dared to dream.
The French team gave them hope, at least before kick-off, by observing the Haka from just under the nostrils of the All Blacks.
But with New Zealand 13-3 up at half-time, the tension seemed to slip off the visiting Kiwi shoulders and thoughts turned to another fun weekend in Paris.
It wasn’t the fairytale French renaissance, a la Twickenham in 1999 when they scored 26 points in 13 glorious minutes, but there’s more to Bernard Laporte’s side than swaggering insousiance and a cavalier attitude. The discipline was good, the defence valiant and, slowly but surely, they chipped away a foothold from which to make their push.
France were further inspired by chorus after chorus of the jaunty “Allez Les Bleus” which is at least more tuneful than “All Blacks, cha, cha, cha”.
But the more they fought back, the more it looked like the underdogs were being cruelly taunted - allowed into their master’s den only to have the door snapped shut on their tail halfway through.
With two minutes left and New Zealand pressing again, it was still hard to believe France would hang on.
But the look of France skipper Raphael Ibanez in the news conference afterwards said it all. He was half-grinning, his eyes glinting, like a naughty schoolboy after a successful scrumping mission into the forbidden orchard.
And the much-maligned Laporte might as well have had “I told you so” tattooed on his high forehead.
All Blacks captain Richie McCaw, by contrast, sported a thousand-yard stare, unable to explain clearly what had just happened, while Kiwi coach Graham Henry wore the frown of the orchard owner.
He used the “all credit to the French” line to bat away questions on his future, his controversial rotation policy and the lack of competitive games so far in this tournament.
“Whatever the fans out there are feeling, I can promise you, the guys in the shed are feeling 10,000 times worse,” chipped in assistant coach Steve Hansen.
Plenty of post-mortems will be conducted - in New Zealand, in Cardiff, on the way back to London - but one thing that seems clear is that this Kiwi side didn’t have enough collective experience of toughing out a victory, even when the chips are down.
Where, for example, was the late drop-goal platform? It might not be pretty, but you do what you have to for a win.
The French triumph in 1999 was arguably the most remarkable match in the sport’s history, while the night that followed, certainly in the pubs I ventured to around Twickenham, matched it, with Kiwis, Frenchmen and anyone else present all mixing in together to celebrate rugby.
This day comes close and has saved me from using the original intro, based on a rant about the clowns who sent France to their World Cup death in Wales. First or second in the group, the schedule should never have allowed it. But it doesn’t matter now.
It's a shame to see the back of the Kiwi fans - they're an amiable bunch - but the hosts will be back fighting on home soil next week and the World Cup has caught alight.
Rob Hodgetts is a BBC Sport journalist based in London.