French fans felt as if they had had one hand on the paramount trophy of world rugby, only to have it ripped away by the All Blacks after a performance that defied expectations and kept alive a burning World Cup rivalry.

A crowd of about 10,000 packed the square in front of Paris Town Hall to watch the match on a giant screen.

Waving tricolor flags handed out by the French Rugby Federation and a few flags of clubs from the southwestern heartland of rugby, they lustily sang La Marseillaise, with its brutal demands to spill foreign blood, at one of the hot spots of the French Revolution.

The mood swung wildly as the match progressed. At some moments, you could almost hear a pin drop; at others, the wild cheers and the whoosh of flags mixed with deafening roars.


Farther north, at the Stade de France, thousands more were given free seats to watch the match on a giant screen.

In Paris, some cafes were offering "brunches rugby", given the mid-morning timing of the match. Villages in the southwest and many rugby clubs staged parties to mark the once-in-a-generation clash.

For the French, it was essential Les Bleus recover their honour after their error-strewn and luck-enhanced path to the final.

And yesterday fans got what they wanted when their team put in a show of guts, skills in defence and a superlative lineout that almost pipped their rivals at the post.

A huge cheer arose in Paris when the team, shaped like an arrow, walked towards the All Blacks in a show of defiance as they performed the haka.

As the French forwards - who many media pundits had predicted would be chopped up by the All Black pack - put in tackle after tackle, there rose a loud "ouiiii" of pleasure, followed by a chorus of "Allez les Bleus, Allez les Bleus". Excitement peaked when Francois Trinh-Duc jinked his way through the All Black line and was only brought down as a falling defender grabbed his foot.

In the nail-biting last minutes, the sound was deafening, but ceded to instant silence as the referee's whistle blew. Shoulders slumped and cigarettes were lit for the start of a long post-match autopsy on the journey home.

The square emptied and a platoon of municipal cleaners arrived with their brooms; troops of police gently ushered the crowd across the street. Paris drivers, known for their speed and lack of patience, uncharacteristically stopped to let the crowds pass.

In Toulouse, more than 10,000 devotees turned out to watch the match at the city's stadium. "I'm disappointed by the result, not by the French team,' said Maria, who went to see the match with her three children.

"This is les Bleus all over," said a supporter in Paris. "Crap one day, brilliant the next. They played so well, though. They've finished with honour. This was a real final."

"It's so sad, so sad," said a woman with a southwestern French accent, who came with her sister to watch the match and was almost in tears in the second half.

"They came so close."

A news headline summed it up: "So close to happiness."