AUCKLAND // The English were worried about which France would turn up for their Rugby World Cup quarter-final, and with good reason. Their gravest fears were realised at Eden Park.
Torn apart and out-muscled in front of a crowd of 49,105, England failed to match their old rivals for patience and pace, and never looked like overcoming a 16-0 half-time deficit, despite second-half tries from Ben Foden and Mark Cueto. "We're utterly, utterly gutted," said Alex Corbisiero, the prop. "Four years are down the drain, basically."
After reaching the last two World Cup finals and winning in 2003, England's campaign will be picked apart for being dull on the field and, in contrast, disturbing off it.
James Haskell, the replacement flanker, said the players let their hair down in much the same way as the other European teams, but they learned to their cost that doing it as England players brought them more of the spotlight.
On Saturday, their troubles off the field were not responsible for a failure to handle France's kick-and-chase game, and for the poor tackling that let through two French tries in the left corner.
The French splintered England in the scrums and pick-pocketed their line-outs. England's terrible passing hardly helped.
The players said they were still confident at half time that they could recover, but their comeback took too long to get rolling and the second try to Cueto in the 71st minute was too late.
France milked the time with injury breaks and rucks and mauls.
"We could feel their knees were wobbling and cracks were appearing … we got close," said Toby Flood, the midfielder.
Defeat was difficult to digest, he said, because they had worked so hard this summer, when they launched a streak of six victories.
"To see it all washed away in 80 minutes, let alone the first 30, is hard to take," Flood said.
Martin Johnson, the England manager, said that he empathised with the players who were retiring or certain not to be around for the 2015 World Cup in England, the likes of Lewis Moody, Mike Tindall, Jonny Wilkinson, Simon Shaw and Steve Thompson, all teammates of Johnson on the 2003 championship team.
As for his own future, Johnson said that so soon after the match was not the time for a decision.
"What's devastating is that there's so much talent, so much youth in this side and we expected to do really well," Haskell said.