AUCKLAND, New Zealand - Widely mocked following embarrassing losses and with coach and players openly feuding, France again showed why it should never be written off at a World Cup by downing England 19-12 in the quarterfinals on Saturday.
Summoning the spirit that helped knock out the All Blacks at the 1999 and 2007 tournaments, the French stormed into a 16-0 halftime lead after tries to Vincent Clerc and Maxime Medard on their way to avenging the semifinal losses to England at the past two World Cups.
It had all looked so unlikely after a pool stage in which coach Marc Lievremont publicly criticized his players and the media and the team lost to Tonga in one of the biggest upsets in the 24-year history of the tournament.
But France is now the only country to make the semifinals in the past three World Cups, setting up a match against Wales next Saturday.
"I was very happy with our first-half performance in terms of combativity and discipline. We managed to hang onto the ball and express ourselves with talent at times," Lievremont said. "The English came back strongly and I'm proud the players managed to hang on."
"I always told myself that, whatever happened, I wouldn't become bitter. It's just a pure form of happiness that I feel."
Two penalties by Dimitri Yachvili and a second-half dropped goal by Francois Trinh-Duc also contributed to the French fans singing "we're all going to heaven" among the crowd of 49,105 at Eden Park.
England scored second-half tries through fullback Ben Foden and winger Mark Cueto but was never in the match, with only centre Manu Tuilagi emerging with any credit.
Jonny Wilkinson entered the match only six points behind All Blacks flyhalf Dan Carter's all-time record of 1,250. He cut that gap to four before being replaced in the second half, but on this performance he may not receive another chance to close in even further.
The 2003 World Cup-winning star had a match to forget, with passes missing their target, poor options chosen, while even his famed defensive capabilities were below par — being largely at fault for Clerc's try after missing the winger in a one-on-one tackle in the front line.
Apart from a couple of bullocking runs by Tuilagi and a growing scrummaging edge, England was thoroughly outplayed in the opening half by a French team adept at retaining possession and at making slick passes stick in traffic.
England gave away early penalties, made simple handling errors, lost lineout throws and looked stilted when the ball was spread wide.
Two moments encapsulated the inadequacy just before halftime. On the back of a neat offload from Wilkinson and a charge by Nick Easter, England was close to the line when Ben Youngs' pass on the short side hit the back of Cueto's elbow as he was retreating onside.
Then, with time up and the line open, Wilkinson's desperate pass was too high and the ball went through Chris Ashton's hands to ruin a certain try.
By contrast, the performance by France wasn't perfect but positively sublime compared with the dismal form displayed in the losses to New Zealand and Tonga in the pool stage.
The influential Morgan Parra was pivotal in Clerc's try, executing a runaround down the short side to find the straight-running winger, who brushed past by Wilkinson and was too quick for the challenge of Tom Croft before spinning through the tackle of Foden to touch down.
On top of two earlier penalties by Yachvili, France lead 11-0 in the 22nd minute and that advantage was extended further in the 30th.
Dusautoir drove the ball close from a lineout, possession was recycled twice before Parra's long pass found Alexis Palisson near the corner post and he evaded two defenders and slung a one-armed pass inside for Medard to score for a 16-0 halftime lead.
England needed to make changes for the second half, bringing on Courtney Lawes to play blindside flanker, lock Simon Shaw and loosehead prop Alex Corbisiero soon after its resumption for Croft, Louis Deacon and Matt Stevens.
The changes had an effect, Youngs taking a quick tap to catch the defence unawares and finding a charging Shaw up the middle. After the ball was recycled, Foden sold Imanol Harinordoquy a dummy and swerved inside Medard to narrow the gap to 16-7 in the 55th minute.
On the back of several penalties, England increased its tempo and started to stretch France halfway through the second period with Wilkinson and Flood alternating as first receiver.
Wilkinson and Youngs were replaced in the 65th by Richard Wigglesworth and Matt Banahan, drawing an end to Wilkinson's World Cup career and capping his record points total at rugby's showpiece event to 277 in 19 matches.
France dominated the final quarter of the match, setting up camp inside England's quarter for Trinh-Duc to pot his field goal.
England wouldn't give up, Cueto crossing the try line in the 77th despite Clerc's best attempts to stop him but it was too little, too late.
"We're just thoroughly disappointed," England captain Lewis Moody said. "For the first 40 minutes, France came out and took their opportunities. A couple of lapses in defence cost us massively.
"We weren't good enough today. Thorougly disappointed — the whole squad. It's going to be a hard one to swallow."