Tries from Vincent Clerc and Maxime Medard helped France score 16 unanswered first-half points at Auckland’s Eden Park and Les Blues held on for their first win over England in four knockout games at the four-yearly championship.
France, the runner-up in 1987 and 1999, advanced to an Oct. 15 meeting with Wales, which beat Ireland 22-10 in Wellington yesterday to reach the final four for the first time in 24 years. England had reached the past two finals, beating France in the semifinals on both occasions.
“In the past French teams have transcended themselves when they were faced with stronger opposition and sometimes failed after that,” France coach Marc Lievremont said in a news conference. “We’ll see whether this particular team wants to do the same as past generations or write its own history.”
Defending champion South Africa faces fellow two-time winner Australia in today’s third quarterfinal in Wellington before tournament favorite New Zealand hosts Argentina at Eden Park, where it only lost once in the past 25 years. The stadium will host both semifinals and the Oct. 23 final.
France had limped into the final eight after losing to New Zealand and Tonga in what was one of the biggest upsets in World Cup history. No team has ever lifted the Webb Ellis Cup after losing a pool game. Of the six nations left, only the All Blacks and Springboks had perfect records in the group phase.
England was the bookmakers’ favorite for last night’s match after winning all its group games, coming from behind to beat Argentina and Scotland. Team Manager Martin Johnson said his players never recovered from conceding the first 16 points.
“We left ourselves with far too much to do, which is brutal,” Johnson said in a news conference. “That’s what World Cups are about. One team goes home with a smile and it ends in tears for everyone else.”
Dimitri Yachvili kicked two penalties before winger Clerc and full-back Medard touched down in the same corner. England’s second-half rally came from tries by Ben Foden and Mark Cueto and a Jonny Wilkinson conversion, while Francois Trinh-Duc added a drop goal for France.
The French benefited from 10 missed tackles and five handling errors by England to build their 16-point buffer. Clerc pirouetted past two tacklers on a darting run and Medard crashed over after Alexis Palisson slipped the ball back inside to him before being bundled into touch.
England took until the 55th minute to get on the scoreboard when Foden burst through a gap and Wilkinson made it 16-7.
Trinh-Duc’s 73rd-minute drop goal put France 12 points ahead before Cueto scored with three minutes remaining following a review of his grounding of the ball by the television match official. Toby Flood’s conversion attempt went wide. France’s Morgan Parra had a chance to make it 21-12 with the last kick of the game, though his effort struck a post.
“Losing against Tonga was pretty useful,” Parra told reporters. “That match was a reality check. It pushed us to react. Our World Cup has started tonight.”
Wales reached the semifinals for the first time since the inaugural tournament and rebounded from missing the knockout stages four years ago.
Winger Shane Williams, scrum-half Mike Phillips and outside center Jonathan Davies scored tries with fly-half Rhys Priestland kicking two conversions and Leigh Halfpenny booting a penalty for Wales. Ireland’s points came from a Keith Earls try and a conversion and penalty from Ronan O’Gara.
“It’s a massive achievement for us, we’ve worked so hard,” Wales captain Sam Warburton said in a televised interview. “The team in ‘87 did it. They managed to get the third place. All the boys are absolutely thrilled.”
Ireland, which lost all four of its tune-up games before the tournament, upset Australia 15-6 on Sept. 16 on its way to topping their pool. The win over the Wallabies split the four quarterfinals into matchups between teams from the same hemisphere, ensuring that the final will feature one team each from the north and south.
In a meeting of the teams ranked Nos. 5 and 6 by the International Rugby Board, Wales led 10-3 at halftime on winger Williams’s converted third-minute try and Halfpenny’s penalty.
Ireland, which had more possession and territorial advantage playing with the wind, turned down three kickable shots at goal to try to score a try, though each time was denied by a Welsh defense that made a 130 successful tackles to Ireland’s 79. O’Gara kicked Ireland’s only first-half points.
Winger Earls dived over for a try five minutes after the break that O’Gara converted to make it 10-10.
‘Suck it Up’
Scrum-half Phillips added Wales’s second try in the 50th minute after breaking down the short side to touch down in the corner. Davies extended the lead after cutting inside two Irish defenders 13 minutes later and Priestland added the conversion for a 22-10 lead. Wales held onto deny the Irish their first semifinal berth.
“We were off the pace and we go home as a result of that,” said Ireland captain Brian O’Driscoll. “We have to suck it up. When you haven’t performed on the big stage, that really sucks. Life goes on.”
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