Chris Rattue: Salute the victor - Glorious France

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It has been a mantra really. Learn from 1999.

When faced with the bitter taste of defeat, washed down with truckloads of humble pie in my particular case, remember always to salute the victor.

And triumphant they were, the French, in a World Cup quarter-final that was simply magnificent. Heart stopping, pulse racing, edge of the seat, beads of sweat, shivers up the spine.

Apart from continuing to celebrate our complete rugby dominance over Portugal and Romania however, there are no other World Cup silver linings after that thunderous defeat in Wales.

From the moment France stood so close to the haka that war threatened to break out before the first whistle, until the dying seconds when they could run triumphantly backwards with the ball tucked safely under an arm, it was a day that French sport will never forget.

How could these words be necessary - no way in the world did this French team have a performance like that in them. And yet they did. Vive la France.

As for the All Blacks, I would contend here that Graham Henry and friends were right on track until 2007, when they became hooked on a ridiculously over-complicated plot.

The lesson is clear - to get on with rugby via traditional selection values, to abandon test matches as a series of trials and to let the domestic competitions have their place with the odd concession or two. And then, after that, let the chips fall where they may come the World Cup.

Henry's schemes - with official backing - devalued the Super 14 and tests, and left his World Cup squad underdone. Fans are despondent, broadcasters angry, players confused.

The selectors chopped and changed their team to the point of a mad obsession which left them impotent when only mild French pressure was applied. The great Super 14 resting policy will go down as the biggest flop in the history of New Zealand sports planning.

The only consolation is that this quarter-final was a game of stupendous drama and tension.

How do you measure the greatness of a game?

It has long been held that the 1973 match between the Barbarians and All Blacks, also in Cardiff, was the classic to beat all classics, although the tape does not stand the test of time the way the memories of the game do.

Maybe you measure a game's greatness by the quantity of angst rather than the quality of action. If so, October 7, 2007, produced one of rugby's finest hours.

You might never see rugby as good as the stuff which France produced in a spell during that famous 1999 World Cup semifinal win.

But for heart in the mouth drama, biting tension that lifted you towards the screen and sometimes in agony away from it, it is hard to recall a game to equal yesterday morning's.

This is what great sport is all about, a contest played out in a magnificent stadium that leaves you exhausted by the end.

It was heartbreaking and excruciating for All Black supporters though. The All Blacks were rudderless and tentative, reduced to operating with an inside back combination that slipped past the rotation system but not the French defenders.

It has to be mentioned here that Ali Williams was absolutely magnificent and there were other gallant contributors, but it was the French who were covered in glory.

"Life goes on," I tried to tell a friend.

"No it doesn't," he replied gruffly.

I vividly recall an early reaction to the 1999 defeat around this place, when there were allegations of French skulduggery. A call to Richard Loe, the infamous former test prop, elicited the much expected comments that the All Blacks needed to deal with such issues on the field, that it was too late to cry about it afterwards.

There were also issues in Cardiff that weren't dealt with on the field, although some were perhaps beyond their influencing.

It is hard to remember the All Blacks ever getting such a bad rub of the green with refereeing decisions. You had to wonder why the English whistler Wayne Barnes appeared to be against the shaky isles.

There were two obvious shockers, one partly excusable, the other definitely not.

The sin binning of Luke McAlister for obstruction was appalling, because under no circumstances should a match of this magnitude be shaped by a decision like that.

The All Black No 12 half turned his shoulder towards the French runner, but it was only a marginal penalty. As for the scooped forward pass which led to France's winning try, these things will happen even if they shouldn't.

Barnes should be castigated for the McAlister decision, though.

Elsewhere, the French appeared to have immunity from prosecution at the rucks, whereas the All Blacks did not. The French got away with murder, although why, who knows?

But if this All Black side had got closer to its billing, those events would have been taken out of the equation.

The All Blacks made more mistakes than the young whistler, for sure. They had the winning of it right down to the final stages, where they failed to set up one decent drop goal opportunity even though they had plenty of chances.

You had to think back to an occasion in Sydney four years ago when a magnificent charge by the great England captain Martin Johnson set up the pot for Jonny Wilkinson. Camaraderie and cohesion were at the heart of that world champion English side. They were qualities which the All Blacks may have spun in the press conference, but they were scrambled under Henry's plan.

Henry's schemes have fallen flat on their face. For the most important match of their tenure, he, Steve Hansen and Wayne Smith chose a lock in Keith Robinson who was so underdone that it made your blood run.

The midfield was chaotic, and they played an injured Dan Carter because they never planned properly for a backup. And how Doug Howlett missed out on that team, I will never know.

They had already discarded the tactical acumen of Aaron Mauger at the 11th hour, leaving the reticent Carter's faults exposed alongside the mindless instincts of Byron Kelleher and McAlister.

The rest and rotation system has been a disaster, sending an underdone squad to the World Cup and leaving the professional Super 14 competition fighting for its reputation. The players should have been rested if and when they needed it through the year, and not en masse. The entire All Black backline looked out of sorts, apart from Howlett, of course, who wasn't required. Those recreational photographs from Corsica will haunt this team. Rest, rest, rest - give us a break.

As for the continual player rotation, the only reason I have garnered from close to the inner sanctum was that Henry operated a democracy that allowed too much horse trading.

This was France's day, when the passion of their defence matched that of their attack eight years ago.

For those of us who have scoffed at Northern Hemisphere rugby, it is a wretched day.

England were average, to put it nicely, in a dreadful game of endless collapsed scrums against a naive and physically weak Australia. But England won, and in a World Cup that is the be all and end all of the deal.

When it came to the crunch, the All Blacks crashed. My God - that makes us chokers.

Then again life goes on, after a period of mourning of course, although again I feel we have learned from the cringe-inducing over-reaction in 1999.

As I write this, emails are flowing in from French supporters, crowing - as they might - over my disparaging column last week about their coach Bernard Laporte and their prospects.

You take a considered stand and you take your chances in these things. It is the columnist's lot, and an enjoyable, invigorating one whatever the outcome.

So once again, congratulations France. And apologies.

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