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French falls just short of a huge RWC final upset

Updated: October 23, 2011, 08:36

AUCKLAND, New Zealand(AP) France came within inches of one of the biggest upsets in Rugby World Cup history, losing Sunday's final by a single point to heavily favored New Zealand after a display of courage and relentless determination.

When New Zealand finally held on for an 8-7 win, France No. 8 Imanol Harinordoquy collapsed to the ground, having given every drop of energy he could muster, and lay prone as All Blacks danced around him in celebration.

Few critics had given France any chance, but coach Marc Lievremont's team rallied from 8-0 down and came within one kick of taking the lead with 15 minutes remaining, only for flyhalf Francois Trinh-Duc's 49-meter effort to drift wide.

"We managed to keep the pressure on them, but not enough to get a few more points,'' captain Thierry Dusautoir said. "The emotion is high when you're playing in a World Cup final, we know we came close to something huge.''

Trinh-Duc thought France deserved to win the match.

"It's very hard to take ... everyone was against us tonight,'' Trinh-Duc said. "It didn't come down to much, and I had the feeling it was us who were playing the most,'' rugby.

"We just knew we had to be much better than them. We were just a little better and that's not enough in a World Cup final, it goes down to small details, penalties.''

It was Lievremont's last match in charge - his coaching career ending like his playing career did, with a loss in the World Cup final.

France was pilloried because of it poor form in the pool stage, where a 37-17 defeat to New Zealand was followed by a humiliating 19-14 loss to Tonga that almost pushed the French out of the competition.

From the depths of despair, France somehow found the pride and passion it had lacked in the pool stage to regroup in the knockout section with a convincing quarterfinal win over England and then a 9-8 semifinal victory over 14-man Wales.

"The Tonga defeat did us a lot of good. We said things to each other and took charge of ourselves,'' Trinh-Duc said. "We kept going and that's where we saw that we were really united, and that's when you see people's true nature.''

Any pre-match talk of France's place in the final not being deserved had fully dissipated soon after the kickoff.

"I remind you of all the comments we had to put up (with) this week, but today there were 30 guys on the field who were just as scared as each other,'' Dusautoir said. "We did our utmost, and fell short by a point.

"Of course we're very sad at the outcome, but we had some luck in the previous match, and that's the way it goes. That's part of sport as well.''

Pockets of French fans struggled to make themselves heard during the national anthem, and then watched with pride as Lievremont's players broke with convention to challenge New Zealand's haka, linking arms and marching forward.

France started in determined fashion, denying New Zealand space and making some inroads through midfield, although never close enough to truly test the All Blacks defense.

When flyhalf Morgan Parra went off for treatment to a head wound for a second time, Trinh-Duc came on and played with verve and intelligence.

Trinh-Duc tried his luck with a dropped goal from 35 meters out, but his effort drifted wide.

He started to get more and more influential as the match went on, breaking through several tackles on a surging first-half run, and showing great awareness to pick up Piri Weepu's hashed kick and leading a quick break which eventually led to captain Thierry Dusautoir's try.

Center Aurelien Rougerie set up Dusautoir near the line and Trinh-Duc converted to make it 8-7.

France was left to rue its kicking, as Dimitri Yachvili missed a penalty from the left, and Trinh-Duc missed his 65th-minute chance from just in front of the halfway line.

Trinh-Duc led attack after attack, helped by Rougerie and Medard as they drove forward constantly.

France's players formed a huddle as New Zealand celebrations continued, showing the unity that brought them together in recent weeks and so close to a first World Cup title after losing the 1987 final to New Zealand, and the 1999 final to Australia, both by far more comprehensive margins.

"A lot of our players will never play in the World Cup again, we all know it's a unique moment we've experienced,'' Dusautoir said. "We faced some fierce criticism and went through very hard times in this tournament. Despite everything we were strong in our minds and we showed a lot of people that rugby isn't all about sidesteps, it's also mental strength.''

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