France restore pride in defeat
Auckland - France will head home after a troubled Rugby World Cup campaign knowing they stunned their many critics to push champions New Zealand to the limit in an 8-7 final defeat at Eden Park here on Sunday.
The French got through to the showpiece match despite twice being beaten in pool play, by New Zealand and Tonga and only qualified for the knockout phase courtesy of a losing bonus point in the latter match.
Sketchy form on the field was matched by vociferous criticism of the players by outspoken France coach Marc Lievremont, as rumours of a rift between the squad and management quickly spread.
France then toppled a woeful England team 19-12 in the last eight before scraping 9-8 past a Wales team reduced to 14 men for an hour of the semi-final.
Lievremont rounded on his squad again after the Wales match, unhappy some players had gone out partying after he'd instructed them to have a quiet night in.
There will be a new regime for France, still to win the World Cup after losing what was their third final, when they arrive home, however.
In an unfathomable move guaranteed to erode Lievremont's already precarious authority, his former France team-mate Philippe Saint-Andre was named as his successor in August, just as the squad assembled to travel to New Zealand.
An emotional Lievremont could only utter one word when asked what he would say to his team after their nail-biting defeat in the final: "Thanks."
Flanker Julien Bonnaire said the France team had been brought closer together because of their well-publicised in-fighting and at times questionable performances on the pitch, notably the shock 19-14 pool loss to Tonga.
"A lot of good things happened, and some bad ones. That's what strengthened the group," Bonnaire said.
"The final was really close. We can hold our heads high at the end of this World Cup. We gave it our all, just as we said we would. Unfortunately, something was missing. It's a pity.
"It's been quite a roller-coaster but, as people say, it's in difficult times that great teams are born, and tonight we stuck together.
"We came closer to each other during the tournament and somehow we are happy to leave the competition this way."
Scrum-half Dimitri Yachvili added: "We are very disappointed. We thought before the game that we should give everything so that we would not have any regrets.
"It was close. We stuck together. We are disappointed we did not make it, but we are proud of ourselves."
France centre Maxime Mermoz said the team had taken encouragement from what was written about them.
"Everything that was said about us, it was a source of motivation in the end," Mermoz said. "We really wanted to show our better side. I think we did it and we can take some positive things away with us."
Fellow midfielder Aurelien Rougerie, whose blunt replies to a journalist in a midweek press conference saw several members of the French press pack leave the room in disgust, added: "We can say that we came out of this competition with our heads up.
"There's no regret. The last four months have some real ups and downs. We were ashamed to lose against Tonga, but I think we have finished on a high note."