A love affair died at Eden Park on Saturday night. And what is more, the IRB allowed it to happen in full view of 60,000 people at the Rugby World Cup.

It began all those years ago, and was an endless source of pleasure. To see the great Boniface brothers and Jo Maso weave and step, the silky running skills of Christian Darrouy and Patrice Lagisquet, plus that mighty back row of Jean Pierre Rives, Jean Claude Skrela and Jean Pierre Bastiat ... well, it was love at first sight.

The exuberance, the passion, the manic (at times) intensity and sheer love for the game - that was the joie de vivre of French rugby. They didn't always win, didn't always score great tries. But you see, they played the game in a way to beguile, to seduce, to love.

They were its greatest publicists with their passionate supporters, great clubs of the south and, of course, Racing and Stade Francais in Paris.

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To walk through the gates at Toulouse, Biarritz, Toulon or Racing on a Saturday afternoon was to experience a frisson of excitement, of anticipated pleasure. The love affair went on and on.

Until Saturday night at Eden Park, when it was brutally destroyed. Sadly, tragically, there it died, strangled by a team not worthy of tying the bootlaces of those great old French teams led by the likes of Jean Prat, Michel Crauste, Christian Carrere and the unique Jean Pierre Rives.

By some coincidence, Rives was in Auckland this weekend to witness this game. What he thought I shudder to think. I'd ring him up and ask him but for the fact that I'm in mourning right now and I might break down completely.

Here was a once mighty, once proud rugby nation that lit up the game for the delectation of a worldwide audience. They scored tries from the end of the earth, captivated those who saw them, and afterwards offered in explanation, as they puffed at their Gauloise, merely a Gallic shrug. We loved them for that, as though it was nothing that special. But it was, my God it was.

But on Saturday night in Auckland, I saw something I thought I'd never see in my life: a French team too frightened, too timid to play the great game. They won the ball but instantly got rid of it. They didn't want it in their hands, didn't want to run, never thought about attack. Survival was all that mattered.

In doing so, Marc Lievremont and his team betrayed the entire heritage of French rugby. Players like Gachassin, Sella, Codorniou, Charvet, Dauga and Spanghero played the game in its true sense. They wanted to run, to attack -not to hide.

This craven performance by a French rugby team was a disgrace. It was pathetic, the performance of wimps. The only greater tragedy on the night was that it succeeded and landed them in the Rugby World Cup final.

Lievremont, their coach, afterwards sat at a press conference deep in the bowels of Eden Park and offered a smug countenance. Sprouting a new, freshly clipped moustache, Lievremont looked down his Gallic nose at his critics below him and sneered: "I don't care at all whether it was good or not a good match or whether Wales deserve to be in the final.

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"We are in the final and that is all that counts."

Wrong Monsieur; wrong, wrong, wrong. Only a fool and a very blinkered one at that, cheerfully betrays his nation's heritage for the ephemeral advantage of reaching a cup final.

Marc Lievremont would not understand this. But sometimes, traditions and long established practices override mere short-term advantage. That was the triumph of Wales on Saturday night even amid their tragedy. They played rugby football, whenever they could, that would have delighted the Gods.

If Marc Lievremont thinks this no longer matters, he is deluding himself. For once a nation hurls its great traditions, its roots out of the window then it is lost, cast aside. This French team did that on Saturday night and deserves our complete scorn for doing so.

To lose a great performer in any of the arts, sport included, is always sad. The passing of those such as Sir John Gielgud, actor extraordinaire, and Pavarotti, owner of that outstanding voice, leaves a deep sadness.

In the sporting theatre, Saturday night confirmed that rugby football has lost one of its greatest ever talents and we are all the poorer for that.

Scorned I may feel at this time, hurt by bitter rejection. But you're minded to suggest that they give the bloody World Cup to France now and be done with it, if it means so much to them that they will cheerfully destroy their own great rugby history to get their hands on it.

But a second, better thought emerges; ah, the emotion of vengeance. Let us hope that France's opponents in next Sunday night's final rip them to pieces with some rugby of delight, desire and ambition.

For if the French have abandoned the torch of great play then someone, somewhere must pick it up. The game cannot afford to see it lost forever.