Inquest begins into shock All Blacks exit

Players, coaches and fans were trying to come to terms tonight with the All Blacks' shock exit from the World Cup after this morning's 20-18 loss to France.

The tournament favourites crashed out in Cardiff leaving the rugby world asking what went wrong.

All Blacks coach Graham Henry put it down to passion - saying the French had too much of it.

Henry said the All Blacks had not taken scoring chances at decisive moments but conceded the better side had won.

"The French played particularly well defensively, were pretty astute in their gameplan and took their opportunities," Henry said.

"We are disappointed but realistic and understand the better side won on the day and a lot of credit goes to them. We gave it our best shot and it wasn't good enough. That's the fact of the matter and we have to live with it, accept it and get on."

Former All Black captain Stu Wilson was harder on the New Zealand players, saying the side looked stiff and that a lack of cool heads in the last ten minutes lost the game.

He said the French forward pass on their winning try should have been picked up by three pairs of eyes, but the All Blacks had countless opportunities to slot a drop goal and that should have been the tactic.

"Put McAlister or Evans deep in the pocket and go for drop goal after drop goal," Wilson said.

He said it was apparent that no one stood up to give the team direction once the wheels started coming off.

"The country is in mourning. They've now got to be prepared for the tsunami wave of criticism from the fans and the media," Wilson said.

Halfback Byron Kelleher said today's defeat was worse than the 1999 one, also at the hands of the French.

"It hurts even more. We're a better team than '99 and we know it," he said. "Personally, to never reach the pinnacle of winning the World Cup breaks me. I'm suffering and it hurts me.

"No disrespect to any of the All Blacks in that 1999 campaign but the closeness and the camaraderie that we've got in this team is something special.

"We strongly believe we could have pulled it off and we were just two points away. It just didn't go for us on the night."

Commentator Murray Deaker described the result as nothing short of a national disaster.

"Sadly we are a dumb rugby nation, we don't play the big matches well," he said.

"We play them in a boofhead way. We were a bunch of boofheads playing out there tonight against a French side that isn't that good. On the big occasions we choke."

In an epic quarter-final, France hit back from a 13-0 deficit to leave New Zealand still waiting for a second World Cup success after they won the inaugural tournament in 1987.

The All Blacks enjoyed almost three quarters of the possession throughout a pulsating 80 minutes but scored just two tries, one in each half from Luke McAlister and Rodney So'oialo.

France lost flanker Serge Betsen to an early head injury, the veteran knocked cold by a stray knee. Their confrontational stance to New Zealand's haka - staring down their opponents within breathing distance - was replicated on the pitch as the French put their bodies on the line time and time again.

Asked where the game had been lost, a downbeat Henry said: "That last pass close to the goalline... we knocked the ball on or did not secure it properly.

"The French took their opportunities. We had a large territorial advantage in the second half, had opportunities ... didn't quite finish it. I guess from the All Black point of view that was our Achilles heel.

"From the French point of view, I think they defended superbly. They certainly played with a huge amount of passion and fire and it was a different French side to the one we have played in recent times."

Captain Richie McCaw summed up the mood in the All Blacks dressing room, saying: "The pain in the eyes and the body language sums it up. Some of the guys have probably played their last test for the All Blacks, that hurts as well.

"It's hard to put in words, there are some pretty shattered guys as you would expect.

"I'm at a loss to say why we didn't put our game together as we would have liked. You can make a whole lot of excuses but the boys were ready to play today, but we just couldn't put it out there."

- REUTERS, AFP, EDWARD GAY

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