CARDIFF - All Blacks skipper Richie McCaw was at a loss to explain how the tournament favourites crashed out of the World Cup to France, a defeat which leaves them open once again to charges that they 'choke' on the biggest stage.
"If I knew the answers we would have sorted it out. We will be thinking about it for a long time," said a downcast McCaw as France came from behind to secure a semi-final meeting with old rivals England in Paris on Saturday.
The team widely regarded as the best in the world somehow let slip a 13-0 lead on the half-hour mark and ended up losing this quarter-final at the Millennium Stadium 20-18 as second-half tries from Thierry Dusautoir and Yannick Jauzion formed the basis of France's fight back.
"We went out to play our best and we weren't allowed to play our best because we got the French team," 26-year-old openside flanker McCaw said.
This result meant that, for the first time in the six-edition history of the World Cup, New Zealand had failed to reach the semi-finals.
It also evoked comparisons with France's equally unexpected 43-31 win against the All Blacks in the last four of the 1999 World Cup.
New Zealand have won the World Cup just once, on home soil in 1987.
After another World Cup without a trophy it was hard to resist the conclusion that New Zealand were rugby's answer to the school bully - someone who doesn't know what to do when their 'victim' hits back.
France, were given a huge wake-up call during a 17-12 tournament opening defeat against Argentina in Paris.
But nothing New Zealand, who strolled through a Pool where their closest match was a 40-0 thrashing of Scotland, had experienced this tournament had prepared them for France's ferocity and defensive commitment.
"It's not an excuse," said McCaw when asked about whether if the ease of their Pool phase had ultimately worked against New Zealand. "A lot of the guys have been through this before, they've played big Test matches."
"In the first half, we got forced into playing aerial ping pong. At half-time we came in and said to keep pressure on and we didn't do that. Then we had a guy in the bin."
All Black coach Graham Henry, accused of devaluing both a New Zealand cap, by his policy of squad rotation during the past few years, and this season's Super 14, by his withdrawal of leading New Zealand players, said he'd no regrets on those counts.
"Coming into this World Cup everyone agreed it was the right strategy. It has been successful in Test matches over time. We have to give the credit to France. In the end, they played better," said Henry.
New Zealand's 61-10 victory over France in Wellington in June saw them extend their winning streak to seven matches in a row.
The loss was France's record Test defeat but there was never any question of coach Bernard Laporte losing his job over the result.
Had Henry, who took charge of the All Blacks following the 2003 World Cup. presided over a similar debacle he would likely have lost his job.
And in rugby-mad New Zealand the notion that a Test loss can be brushed aside in the cause of building for the World Cup has little credence.
"All rugby Test matches the All Blacks play are important," said Henry. Obviously the World Cup is the pinnacle. We gave it our best shot and it wasn't good enough."
The former headmaster was equally blunt when asked about his own future as New Zealand coach. "I'm pretty comfortable at 61. I don't have to worry about it. I'm not thinking about it."