France, Wales into Rugby World Cup semis

by staff

France stunned England and Wales overpowered Ireland to become the first teams to reach the Rugby World Cup semi-finals on Saturday.

The French put their stuttering group phase form behind them to shock England 19-12 in Auckland after Wales defeated Ireland 22-10 in Wellington.

France and Wales will now meet in the first semi-final at Auckland's Eden Park on Saturday, October 15.

France, knocked out in the semi-finals of the past two World Cups by England, had just done enough to reach the knockout stages after a loss to New Zealand and a shock 19-14 defeat by Tonga.

But 'Les Bleus' have an unmatched ability to go from the ridiculous to the sublime in the space of one match and they belied the fact no side has won the World Cup after losing one pool match, let alone two, to be an astounding 16-0 up against England at half-time after tries by Vincent Clerc and Maxime Medard.

Dimitri Yachvili, whose two early penalty goals settled France, said: "This was for the jersey, for our family, our friends and our supporters here in New Zealand because they were very sad last week."

France, the losing finalists in 1987 and 1999, have a reputation for producing one great performance in a World Cup but never in a final and scrum-half Yachvili tried to keep a lid on celebrations by adding: "It's just a quarter-final, there are still two games to win."

Ben Foden's 53rd minute try, converted by Jonny Wilkinson, reduced France's lead before a Francois Trinh-Duc drop-goal took the French out to 19-7.

Mark Cueto gave England hope of forcing extra-time with a try three minutes from the end but France wound down the clock without too many more scares.

Defeat finished an England World Cup campaign blighted by allegations of off-field misbehaviour as the 2003 champions and losing finalists four years ago suffered their earliest exit at the tournament since a 1999 quarter-final defeat by South Africa.

"We had two defensive lapses on the edge and they scored tries and suddenly we were way behind," said England manager Martin Johnson.

"I'm proud of the guys for the way they came back. It's so disappointing because games like this are winnable but not when you are 16-0 down," added England's 2003 World Cup-winning captain.

"It's a brutal way to end it but that's the way it ends for everyone except the winners. They (France) deserved to win."

Earlier, Wales captain Sam Warburton hailed a "massive" effort after leading his side, like France yet to win the World Cup, into only their second semi-final since making the final four when New Zealand staged the inaugural 1987 edition.

"It was a massive performance, a massive defensive effort from 1-15," said the 23-year-old flanker.

"The boys knew we were either going home on Monday or we're here until the end of the tournament, so that was the motivation," said Wales coach Warren Gatland.

"We're not ready to go home yet," added the New Zealander, himself a former Ireland coach.

Ireland skipper Brian O'Driscoll, whose team beat Australia 15-6 in the pool phase, couldn't hide his emotion after what could be the centre's last shot at World Cup glory.

"We got outplayed in the second half, they scored two good tries, maybe a bit of weak defence, but I'm very disappointed to be going home."

Wales, who suffered a narrow 17-16 loss to champions South Africa in the pool phase, bested Ireland at the breakdown and got their dangerous backs into the game from early on as they outscored the Irish three tries to one with Shane Williams, Mike Phillips and Jonathan Davies all crossing for the Welsh.

Ireland briefly drew level at 10-10 through wing Keith Earls's 44th minute try but that was as good as it got for O'Driscoll's men.