AUCKLAND, New Zealand - A shambolic loss last weekend and a squad in disarray set the scene perfectly for one of those French wins that defies explanation.
A week after an upset loss to Tonga that almost cost it a place in the knockout rounds, France raced to a 16-0 halftime lead over England and then hung on for a 19-12 victory Saturday to reach the World Cup semifinals for the third consecutive time.
In 2007, France rallied for a shocking win over the top-ranked All Blacks in the quarterfinals. Other epic, unexpected wins include the 1987 semifinal against Australia and the famous second-half resurgence at the same stage against New Zealand in '99.
Problem for the French — a loss has followed immediately after each of those big wins.
"We've often seen French teams surpass themselves in the past and then mess up afterward," France coach Marc Lievremont said. "We need to know if this team wants to write its own history."
They're playing regular Six Nations rival Wales next. The Welsh reached the semifinals for the first time since the inaugural World Cup in New Zealand with a 22-10 win over Ireland in Wellington.
The French have also lost in the semifinals of the past two Worlds Cups, both times to England. They came into the 2011 quarterfinals in the worst form of all eight teams, yet were always considered the most likely to inflict an upset because of it.
Lievremont had openly criticized his players for their lack of commitment and clashed with the French press during a pool stage that involved losses to New Zealand and Tonga — one of the biggest ever World Cup upsets — and uninspiring wins over over Canada and Japan.
The players and staff cleared the air in a bonding session Monday and practiced with renewed vigour and sense of purpose, with the sole aim of restoring French honour. So far, so good.
"The players honoured their side of the contract tonight," Lievremont said. "They've done the equivalent of their predecessors. It depends if they want to stop there or carry on."
France has lost two World Cup finals. Now they won't meet a high-ranked team unless they reach the championship match.
Defending champion South Africa takes on No. 2-ranked Australia at Wellington in Sunday's first match — both are aiming to be the first to win three World Cup titles — before No. 1-ranked New Zealand meets 2007 semifinalist Argentina at Eden Park. The All Blacks are aiming to end a World Cup drought that has dragged on since they won the first edition in '87 with a lopsided victory over France in the final.
The French have inflicted some bitter defeats on the New Zealanders since then, including one four years ago in Cardiff.
"It's a different context but just as intense as beating the All Blacks in 2007," France captain Thierry Dusautoir said of Saturday's win over England.
The victory in front of 49,105 people epitomized the best elements of French rugby — flamboyant, exhilarating and full of passion, typically inspired by a woeful previous performance.
Two penalties from scrumhalf Dimitri Yachvili and tries to fullback Maxime Medard and winger Vincent Clerc gave France a 16-0 lead. The English scored second-half tries through fullback Ben Foden and winger Mark Cueto, but Francois Trinh-Duc's second-half dropped goal put the match beyond them.
"Games like this are winnable but not when you're 16-nil down, really," England manager Martin Johnson said. "It's a brutal way to end it. It's so disappointing."
Johnson wouldn't answer questions on his immediate future in charge at England, which won the 2003 World Cup and reached the 2007 final.
Jonny Wilkinson, who kicked the winning dropped goal in extra time to beat Australia in 2003, likely has played his last World Cup game.
He didn't have a particularly inspiring match and was replaced in the second half. He stands at No. 2 in the list of all-time international scorers with 1,246 points, and has the record for most points scored in the World Cup. Now it could be England in disarray after a campaign that was overshadowed by some unsavoury off-field incidents and allegations of cheating.
As for Dusautoir, he just wanted his team to show some resolve and prove the critics wrong, resorting to the French running game and dispensing with the play-it-safe Anglo-Saxon game.
"We didn't want to go out like this, we wanted to show our true value," he said. "We wanted to show how we can play rugby. I think we did it tonight. We need to keep it up."
Wales has also had something of a resurgence of its running game, with an attack-minded halfback pairing of Mike Phillips and Rhys Priestland directing a young and vibrant backline.
Veteran winger Shane Williams gave Wales a third-minute lead with a try in the right corner and, after Keith Earls crossed in the corner to level the scores at 10-10 early in the second half, the Welsh responded with Phillips' individual snipe down the blindside for a try and Jonathan Davies' solo effort through some feeble defence in midfield.
"It's an historic win for Wales today. The boys have been outstanding," Phillips said. "We were superb today. we've worked our socks off for this — we deserve the win."
There were big expectations on Ireland after an upset pool win over Tri-Nations champion Australia and a thumping victory over Italy.
"We had high hopes going into the game. We thought we were in good form and we just got outplayed on the day," said Ireland captain Brian O'Driscoll, a veteran of four World Cup campaigns. "It's disappointing, collectively and personally. I won't get this opportunity again, and that really sucks."