By Julien Pretot
PARIS (Reuters) - It was a case of so near and yet so far for France as Les Bleus put up a spirited fight against New Zealand on Saturday before going down for their eighth consecutive defeat against the mighty All Blacks.
World champions New Zealand won 26-19, their 12th victory in as many games this year, but France manager Philippe Saint-Andre insisted the result at the Stade de France could easily have been different.
"The players are sad because we had all the ingredients for a victory but we lacked accuracy, especially in the first half when we should have been ahead," Saint-Andre told reporters.
Instead, France, who have lost seven of their nine games in 2013, were locked at 9-9 at halftime despite some nice attacking moves.
After the break, New Zealand scored a couple of tries through Charles Piutau and Kieran Read to open up a 14-point lead, with Brice Dulin's late score setting up a tense finale.
France, who had been dominant in the scrum, were penalised on the last set piece and left the pitch frustrated.
"We have courage and desire, but it's the little details that make the difference," said Saint-Andre. "We were good in the scrum, apart from the last one, when we're penalised."
France have not beaten New Zealand since prevailing 27-22 in Dunedin in 2009, having to deal with the 30-0 whitewash last June followed by a more respectable 24-9.
This year's other defeat against the world champions was a 23-13 reverse in the first of three June tests.
Saturday's defeat was no exception. France played some decent rugby, but failed to cash in on the opportunities that came their way.
"We have the character. At some point we were 14 points behind and we find the resources to come back in the game and we almost snatched the draw. It shows this team has courage," said Saint-Andre.
Resolve, however, is not enough and captain Thierry Dusautoir seemed to be the only Frenchman to note that on Saturday night, saying Les Bleus needed unwavering start-to-finish focus.
"We must improve in that department," he told reporters.
"At the level we play, physical commitment is not enough. New Zealand manage to be clear-sighted despite the physical intensity they put into the match."
Assistant coach Yannick Bru said there was a "power cut" between the 45th and 60th minute.
Most of the French players took pride in often putting New Zealand on the back foot, rather than focus on what went wrong.
"Against teams like this one, you concede one, two tries and then you just let go and concede 40 points, while we manage to come back and believe in ourselves until the end," said scrumhalf Morgan Parra.
"We were not far from a draw. We lost on details," said lock Pascal Pape.
It is now those details France must work on to stand a chance not only against the All Blacks but also South Africa, whom they meet in a fortnight at the Stade de France, a week after taking on Tonga in Le Havre.
"To beat them (New Zealand) we must be perfect," said Dusautoir.
"Let's keep our heads down and continue to work. If we go on like this there will soon be better days," said Saint-Andre.