AUCKLAND, New Zealand - The English were worried about which France would turn up for their World Cup quarterfinal on Saturday, with good reason. Their gravest fears were realized on Eden Park.
England hoped to encounter the dysfunctional team which crashed and burned against Tonga last weekend. Instead, the familiar flash-and-dash France came out and stunned the Six Nations champions 19-12.
Torn apart and outmuscled in front of a crowd of 49,105, England failed to match its old rival for patience and pace, and never looked like overcoming a 16-0 halftime deficit, despite second-half tries to Ben Foden and Mark Cueto.
"We're utterly, utterly gutted," said prop Alex Corbisiero. "Four years are down the drain basically."
After reaching the last two World Cup finals and winning in 2003, England's campaign was sure to be picked apart for being dull on the field and contrastingly disturbing off it.
The trip couldn't help but turn into a PR disaster by involving Mike Tindall on a night out with an ex-girlfriend only weeks after he married into the royal family, lecherous comments by some players to a hotel staffer and allegations of cheating by swapping balls for goalkicks. But replacement flanker James Haskell, one of the players reprimanded for making sexist comments to a hotel worker in Dunedin, said the off-field controversies didn't affect the team's game.
Haskell said they let their hair down in much the same way as the other European teams, but learned to their cost that doing it as England players brought them more of the spotlight.
On Saturday, their troubles off the field weren't responsible for a failure to handle France's kick-and-chase game, and the poor tackling that let through two French tries in the left corner. The Tricolores splintered England in the scrums and pick-pocketed their lineouts, and England frequently hurt itself with terrible passing.
"Whilst we were bleeding, we were opening wounds a little bit more," England manager Martin Johnson said.
The players said they were still confident at halftime they could recover, but their comeback took too long to get rolling and the second try to Cueto in the 71st minute was too late. France milked the time with injury breaks and rucks and mauls.
"We could feel their knees were wobbling and cracks were appearing ... we got close," said midfielder Toby Flood.
Flood said France was smart and out-thought England in the first half. Defeat was difficult to digest, he said, because they had worked so hard this summer, when they launched a streak of six wins.
"To see it all washed away in 80 minutes, let alone the first 30, is hard to take," Flood said.
Replacement scrumhalf Richard Wigglesworth said captain Lewis Moody gave an emotional speech in the changing room after the match, telling his teammates to remember what the defeat felt like so they wouldn't have to suffer it again.
Johnson said he felt for players who were retiring or certain not to be around for the 2015 World Cup in England, the likes of Moody, Mike Tindall, Jonny Wilkinson, Simon Shaw and Steve Thompson, all teammates of Johnson on the 2003 title team.
As for his own future, Johnson said now was not the time for a decision.
"What's devastating is that there's so much talent, so much youth in this side and we expected to do really well," Haskell said. "It hasn't really sunk in yet, but we're going to wake up tomorrow for the first time in New Zealand knowing we're not flying somewhere confident of another win, but knowing we're going home."