TOKYO, 21 Oct – In sport, it is often said it is the hope that kills you. As the French fans trudged disconsolately out of Oita Stadium after their defeat by Wales on Sunday, they had cause to agree.
Les Bleus' pool-stage performance was a little underwhelming: they overcame Argentina and Tonga only by the skin of their teeth. Many therefore expected a Wales team packed with experience and young talents like Josh Adams to romp to victory.
But France pulled the strings during a frenetic first half – driven on by the intensity of Gael Fickou, above left with Wales Dan Biggar, the power of the outstanding Virimi Vakatawa, and the creativity of Antoine Dupont.
France led 12-0 after just nine minutes. At half-time, a place in the last four appeared firmly in their grasp, as they led 19-10.
Then came Sebastien Vahaamahina’s red card for an elbow on Aaron Wainwright early in the second half, which made post-match headlines. However, regular followers of Les Bleus will not have been surprised by their subsequent collapse, as Wales added 10 points without reply to win by a single point.
Since the start of 2018, France have lost seven test matches in which they have been leading at half-time. No other international side has relinquished half-time advantages as often during the same period.
The most notable example also came against Wales in the Six Nations earlier this year. Having led 16-0 at the interval at the Stade de France, Les Bleus subsided almost inexplicably to a 24-19 defeat.
In the competition’s long history, no other team has lost after taking such a sizeable half-time lead.
This record is in striking contrast to France's results between the 2007 and 2011 World Cups. That was one of their most successful spells in recent history, featuring a Grand Slam in 2010 and a runners-up spot at Rugby World Cup 2011.
In that period, Les Bleus ruthlessly converted half-time leads into victories. The only time exception was during the 2011 Six Nations, when they lost 22-21 to Italy in Rome having led 8-6 at half-time.
That experience paid dividends during the knockout stages of RWC 2011. France led England 16-0 at half-time in the quarter-final and comfortably withstood a second-half fightback to prevail 19-12.
In the famous semi-final against Wales, the French kept their 14-man opponents at bay to win 9-8, having been up 6-3 at the break.
In the aftermath of Sunday’s defeat, coach Jacques Brunel put his team's profligacy down to inexperience. With an average age of 26 years and 344 days, the France squad was indeed the youngest of the quarter-finalists.
"(We need) time to build up a team that will have results, for confidence, and it is probably what we lacked," said Brunel.
"But for the future generations, we are one of the youngest teams in the competition, and (have) all the potential. They will keep on learning and it will make them mature. There is a brighter future for this team."
Can France develop a more clinical streak over the next four years? A home World Cup in 2023 should provide excellent motivation.