The rivalries: Fear pushes French to unexpected wins

By Henri Bru

The French celebrate beating New Zealand in the semifinal of the World Cup at Twickenham in 1999.
Photo / Allsport
The French celebrate beating New Zealand in the semifinal of the World Cup at Twickenham in 1999. Photo / Allsport

For the French public and for the players, New Zealand has been for decades the second most loved team, by a huge margin.

Nine times out of ten, they will win. There is still one time. Those were the first words of Jean Claude Skrela, the French coach in 1999, in his pre-game address to the French team in the lockers at Twickenham.

There is a lot in this sentence. The huge respect for the All Blacks, their record on the international scene, their tradition. And just the ray of hope at the end of the tunnel.

Trying to find logical reasons for the two wins of 1999 and 2007 during the World Cups is an impossible task for any French rugby writer. Ditto for the first triumph in New Zealand in 1979 (on the 14th of July, Bastille Day), or even the first series win in 1994, just three weeks after they had been beaten on the way by Canada.

Never believe a French victory against New Zealand has been carefully planned months in advance. It does not work like that. To take only two examples, Fabien Galthie, the scrum half who was so important in 1999, and Thierry Dusautoir, probably the man of the match in 2007, were called in as replacements for injured players.

Disgusting for those who believe in methodical planning, in leaving no stone unturned.

The only certain thing is that beating the All Blacks is the pinnacle in the career of any French player. Interestingly, in the main team sport in France, soccer, you just need to swap New Zealand with Brazil to reach the same feeling. And France did win against Brazil in the 1986, 1998 and 2006 World Cups.

To make things more complicated, there is not a hint of a "love-hate" relationship from the French side of the story. For the French public and for the players, New Zealand has been for decades the second most loved team, by a huge margin. And, seen from here, the fact that the All Blacks have not won a second World Cup since 1987 is considered a denial of justice, never as a subject of sarcasm.

From Philippe Sella, the great French centre, to Fabien Pelous, the most capped French player, everyone agrees. They are the benchmark, and nothing is more exciting than to measure yourself against the best.

History has probably played a big part. The first international played by France, in 1906, was against New Zealand, and not against our English neighbours.

Another important factor is the fact that rugby was the sport for the masses in New Zealand, as it is in the southwest of France. Thirty years ago, farmers or people from rural heritage were still largely represented in the two teams. Walter Spanghero and Colin Meads were cult figures in their country because they were the flag bearers of their community.

The Springboks have not by a mile the same cult status as the All Blacks in France.

That may have something to do with the fact that France won a test series against the Springboks, in 1958, on their very first tour of the Republic. On those days where touch judges were not assistant referees, where there was no citing commissioner and no video, the French were able to match the Springboks, on and off the ball. It is a common mistake to believe French rugby is good only when its backs are.

Most often, the French team has been near its best when it had great forwards. And to start with, a great front row. Nowhere in the rugby world is the tight- head prop revered as the most important man of the team as he is in France.

Obviously also, since 1987 and the first World Cup, France-New Zealand has been a classic. France has only once played South Africa in a World Cup (1995), and only twice Australia (1987, 1999), compared to four times against the All Blacks (1987, 1999, 2003, 2007). Everyone is waiting for the fifth in September.

But what brings the best out of a French team when they play the All Blacks? Fear. Fear of being heavily beaten, and that happens quite often. In 1999, four months before the Twickenham surprise, les Bleus had been crushed 54-7 in Wellington.

Fear, and the sense of occasion. Nowhere in the rugby world are players involved in so many knockout games as the French in their career.

French rugby, from the top tier to the basement, is organised to finish in a cup-style competition (les phases finales). More than 30 titles of French Champion are awarded every year. Even the smallest club in France is in a series which can make it French Champion.

Adrenaline flowing, full-on commitment is needed in these one-off games, and can be difficult to repeat week after week.

French players hate to start a game with the favourite tag stuck on their backs. Actually, they have never done so against the All Blacks and it is hard to imagine they will do so. It suits them well in a way; the nothing-to-lose attitude.

In the history of the World Cup, they have been favourites to win against major nations four times, resulting in four defeats (England 1991, 2003 and 2007, Argentina 2007).

On the other hand, apart from the two well-documented wins against New Zealand, they have also beaten Australia in a semifinal in 1987. Go figure .

But miracles are miracles; they cannot be repeated at will. Three months before the beginning of the next World Cup in New Zealand, no sane Frenchman believes for one second that France stands any chance against the All Blacks in the pool game, which will be the 50th game between the two, or later.

And still France will come to this World Cup as the last Northern Hemisphere country to have beaten the All Blacks, in 2009 in Dunedin, and being by far the Northern Hemisphere team with the best record against the All Blacks (12 wins).

Marc Lievremont, who was on the pitch at Twickenham in 1999, could well start his speech with: "Nine times out of ten".

* Henri Bru is a rugby writer for the French daily sports newspaper L'Equipe. He was at the 1999 and 2007 French triumphs over the All Blacks at Twickenham and Cardiff.

Other rivalries:
Australia: Magic clashes between determined siblings
South Africa: Battle against Boks fiercest clash of all
Wales: A history of obsession

- NZ Herald

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