10/08/2011 06:17 EDT | Updated 12/08/2011 05:12 EST

France takes perfect opportunity to salvage pride against England at Rugby World Cup

AUCKLAND, New Zealand - France took the perfect opportunity to save face against its fiercest rival, rising from the shambles of its embarrassing defeat to Tonga to finally beat England at the Rugby World Cup.

France had been disheveled, split by rifts between coach Marc Lievremont and some of his players, unable to get its traditional running game firing.

In the space of 10 first-half minutes, the misery of defeat to Tonga and two previous World Cup semifinal losses to England was washed away as France finally showed the attacking flair missing from its four pool matches with flamboyant tries from winger Vincent Clerc and fullback Maxime Medard.

The players formed a huddle after the final whistle, and Lievremont's clenched fist in the direction of the French fans said it all: France has come back from a very long way to make the semifinals for the third straight time.

"A lot of the players realized we could miss out on a great opportunity. These are rare moments, you don't often realize that because off all the games you play," captain Thierry Dusautoir said. "It's normal that we're happy after all the pressure on our shoulders this week, but we know full well what can happen when you get too carried away."

"We wanted to stay alive in the competition. It's certain that we're feeling better than we were this time last week."

French fans broke into a spontaneous rendition of 'La Marseillaise,' a stark contrast to the jeers and brutal recriminations that followed last weekend's 19-14 defeat to Tonga.

The French had vowed to come out fighting, to give suffering fans something to remember at Eden Park. A huddle that went on for several minutes before the match outlined just how united they would be on the field.

"We had words with each other this week after the Tonga match, we said things to each other," flyhalf Francois Trinh-Duc said. "We wanted to show this wasn't hot air, that these were words between men. You see the real teams in adversity and the true characters."

They also jogged out together several minutes before England came out for the second half, ready to withstand any attempted comeback.

The constant encouragement, pats on the back and hand slaps were a far cry from the introspection and lack of spirit so evident against Tonga, Japan, Canada and New Zealand in the pool stage.

"We've shown that we can play rugby, that we can defend the colours of country with pride," Dusautoir said.

Clerc broke three tackles for his 31st international try, his sixth of the tournament and 11th overall in World Cups, fending off Jonny Wilkinson and spinning around to burst over the line when England's players expected him to hold the ball up.

Lievremont's gamble to turn scrumhalf Morgan Parra into a makeshift flyhalf had been pilloried, but Parra played with remarkable confidence and assurance, igniting the back line with quick, sharp passes.

France's disjointed team may be coming together at just the right time to face an inspired Wales.

Left winger Alexis Palisson, having missed the first three pool matches because of a bad back, made his first significant contribution of the tournament when he collected Parra's looped pass over the left and held off fullback Ben Foden before passing inside to Medard for the second try.

A delighted Medard booted the ball high into the crowd as France surged ahead.

Lievremont then made a tactical switch, taking off scrumhalf Dimitri Yachvili and bringing on Trinh-Duc at No. 10, with Parra reverting back to scrumhalf.

Trinh-Duc's coolly struck dropped goal took the sting out of England's comeback just as it was getting going.

"We're all going to heaven," sang the French fans.

"I had been visualizing that drop goal a lot all week," Trinh-Duc said. "I knew that if I came on it would be a decisive moment and it would be very tight. I'd prepared that quite a lot this week. For once it wasn't Wilkinson doing it."