OITA, 21 Sept - France arrived in Japan with demons on their tail but left having shaken a few of them off.
The third-youngest squad at Rugby World Cup 2019 had not managed three consecutive wins since going out in the quarter-final of RWC 2015. Les Bleus, however, were able to negotiate a path to the quarter-finals in Japan before a moment of madness halted their momentum and they went down by a point against Wales.
Anything less than a knockout-stage finish in 2019 would have marked a historic French low for a team that has always made it through the pool stage at World Cups.
They could not have come closer to that fate in Japan, however, with victory in the critical opening match against Argentina only coming after Emiliano Boffelli's near miss from a post-gong penalty saved France's bacon.
Ten days' rest did little to help the squad cement better habits. The much-changed team that faced USA exhibited handling errors and indiscipline. France took control but then lost their thread, living off their nerves until the 67th minute when Gael Fickou's try released the pressure.
Next, despite giving up a 17-point lead, they held on against Tonga 23-21, which meant England's win over Argentina assured France's qualification - even before Typhoon Hagibis caused the cancellation of Le Crunch.
Quarter-final opponents Wales - a bete noir for the French with seven wins from the teams' past eight meetings - looked a formidable obstacle but Les Bleus conjured a classic performance.
There was no miracle, though, as their stoic resistance after Sebastien Vahaamahina's 49th-minute red card cracked in the closing minutes, with Ross Moriarty's winning try coming from an embarrassing French error at the scrum.
Jacques Brunel was a semi-finalist as assistant coach in 2003 and 2007, and was eliminated in the pool stage in 2015 when he was in charge of Italy. He now leaves Les Bleus with a record of 10 wins in 24 matches.
His contract initially ran to June 2020, but with the arrival of Fabien Galthie after the World Cup, his role has still to be clarified. During the tournament, Brunel made it clear that RWC 2019 would be his last World Cup, but did not say it would be his final challenge. He has perpetuated the mystery even now France are out.
"Do you think I've thought about it? I'm coming off a hugely disappointing match. I haven't thought about what's going to happen tomorrow or the next day," he said.
Player of the tournament
Racing 92 centre Virimi Vakatawa only received his call-up thanks to Geoffroy Doumayrou's injury.
Vakatawa had promised his mother on her deathbed that he would play in a World Cup. Convincing in training and brilliant in the warm-up matches, he made the outside-centre spot his own.
His tally: three matches, two tries, and important attacking contributions (29 runs, seven passes, 12 defenders beaten, and 148m gained) but also a new defensive rigour (an 89 per cent tackle success rate, making him the second-best defender in the backline behind Fickou).
Memorable moment on the pitch
It has been eight years since a French player scored a World Cup drop goal. Francois Trinh-Duc's successor, replacement fly-half Camille Lopez, produced his 35m kick at the optimal moment to snatch the win (and ultimately qualification) from Argentina. Then there was Damian Penaud's tip-on pass from the restart in the last minute against Tonga to seal French victory.
Memorable moment off the pitch
Such was the procession of injured players forced to return home, the French squad formed a guard of honour for those departing the team hotel in Kumamoto. It was an image of solidarity, which suggests that, at the very least, a new group spirit was forged in Japan.
Avant de partir à l’entraînement, les Bleus ont tenu à saluer @ThomRamos15 et Peato Mauvaka avant leur retour en France. Bon voyage les gars, vous allez nous manquer ! 🤝🙋♂️🏉🇫🇷#NeFaisonsXV #XVdeFrance #RWC2019 pic.twitter.com/RxChTzjcYq— France Rugby (@FranceRugby) October 5, 2019
And so the wheel turns: Guilhem Guirado, pictured above, and Louis Picamoles wind up their international careers in the wake of World Rugby U20 Championship wins for Les Bleuets in 2018 and 2019. New coach Galthie will be able to build on the foundations laid since his arrival as assistant after the 2019 Six Nations. France's youth strategy should provide him with the richest pool of players since the turn of the millennium with a home World Cup on the horizon in 2023. Vahaamahina, who turned 28 on Monday, announced his retirement from international rugby after 46 tests. He said he had made the decision months ago and it had nothing to do with his red card.
Quotes of the tournament
"I've made a lot of sacrifices since 2011. I've been injured, I've come back. It's been a heavy load for me these eight years.
"Yesterday, at the end of the match, I sat down on the pitch with Max Machenaud. For eight years, you put one foot in front of the other, but you don't take the time to savour it. You always have to turn your attention to the next match.
"I just wanted to take five minutes, sit down, look around. It was a great stadium and a great match with an important outcome for us. That's how I'm feeling – I want to make the most of every moment. We're privileged to play this sport." - Winger Yoann Huget, below, describes his satisfaction after not being selected for RWC 2011 and missing out after being injured in the first match of RWC 2015.
"In this situation, we're only thinking about ourselves. Selfishness is not in the spirit of rugby. I hope everyone will be safe. We're thinking of our supporters, too, who've made a big effort. Some of them have spent years putting money aside to come and see a big crunch. I wanted to play against England as always. When you're French, you want to beat them." - Second row Bernard Le Roux on the cancellation of France's final pool game against England.
How did they do?
Beat Argentina 23-21 in Tokyo
Beat USA 33-9 in Fukoka
Beat Tonga 23-21 in Kumamoto
Drew against England due to match cancellation
Lost 20-19 to Wales in Oita
France by numbers
5 – The number of towns the French camp visited in Japan: Fujiyoshida, Tokyo, Kumamoto, Fukuoka and Oita.
20 – years and 143 days: Romain Ntamack's age on 21 September when he became France's youngest ever World Cup player. He also makes history as Romain and father Emile Ntamack, who made 11 World Cup appearances between 1995 and 1999, are the first father and son to represent France at a Rugby World Cup.
3 – The number of captains France fielded at RWC 2019: Guilhem Guirado, Louis Picamoles and Jefferson Poirot.
6 – The number of World Cups where France have been unbeaten in the pool phase. Les Bleus also achieved the feat in 1987, 1991, 1995, 1999 and 2003.