1999: Sacre bleu! France demolish All Blacks

By Peter White

The French players celebrate as the All Blacks reel in shock at the loss.
Photo / Allsport
The French players celebrate as the All Blacks reel in shock at the loss. Photo / Allsport

The fourth Rugby World Cup was the first in the professional era. It was hosted principally by Wales, although games were played throughout England, France, Scotland and Wales.

The timing of the World Cup was ideal for Wales, for after perhaps the worst performance record in their proud history they finally had a decent team under New Zealand coach Graham Henry. The man dubbed "The Great Redeemer" had guided Wales to eight consecutive wins prior to the tournament opener against Argentina at the brand new Millennium Stadium in Cardiff.

Wales won a scrappy game 23-18, with flanker Colin Charvis scoring the first try, and after easily beating Japan they faced up to Samoa in an eagerly anticipated replay of the epic match won by Samoa at the 1991 Cup. The rugby enthusiasts were not to be disappointed as the match was one of the highlights of pool play. Wales had the dominant pack and things looked ominous for the gallant Samoans early on after they conceded two penalty tries as their scrum disintegrated.

There was only one option left to them - to make use of any scant possession that came their way. Samoa ran the ball from everywhere and in the process scored five dazzling tries to Stephen Bachop (2), Pat Lam, Lio Falaniko and Silao Leaega.

Samoa won 38-31 but their tournament came to an end when Argentina, coached by former All Blacks boss Alex Wylie, won a remarkable game 32-16 after scoring 29 unanswered points in the second half. Captain and halfback Agustin Pichot was the star of the game and one of the tournament's most influential players.

Meanwhile, pre-World Cup favourites the All Blacks got into their work nicely with a double from Jonah Lomu helping to overcome Tonga 45-9, before a titanic clash against England at Twickenham. The home side was after revenge for the humiliation they suffered at the hands of Lomu and co four years earlier in Cape Town. A try to Jeff Wilson after some magic from Tana Umaga and Christian Cullen, and Andrew Mehrtens' reliable goalkicking, had the All Blacks out to a 16-3 lead just after halftime. England fought back well to level the scores at 16-16 before England's nemesis Lomu struck. He took a pass 55 metres out and showed off his under-rated speed to leave four English defenders sprawled on the turf as he scored the game breaker. A late Byron Kelleher try completed the 30-16 rout. The All Blacks then thrashed Italy 101-3 to book a quarter-final spot.

Australia and South Africa were the other major threats in pool play. The Wallabies looked mentally strong and focused in beating Romania, Ireland and the United States, with the little known American Juan Grobler scoring what was eventually the only try the Wallabies conceded at the World Cup.

The Springboks looked sharp running in six tries in an entertaining 46-29 victory over Scotland, before Spain and Uruguay were dispatched with a minimum of fuss. As usual France were difficult to fathom, showing no indication they would be serious title threats. They struggled past Canada, who were well led again by Gareth Rees appearing in a record fourth World Cup, defeated a below-par Namibia, and were very fortunate to beat Fiji 28-19 in a controversial match in Toulouse. The plucky Fijians scored a brilliant try to fullback Alfred Uluinayau, had another legitimate try disallowed by New Zealander Paddy O'Brien, and with 10 minutes remaining were 19-13 ahead. O'Brien then awarded France a penalty try which broke the Fijians' resolve, and France ran away with it 28-19. But France were not finished yet, as the All Blacks were soon to find out.

The 1991 tournament had 20 teams for the first time so pool winners New Zealand, Australia, South Africa, France and Wales were joined after extra play-off games by England, Scotland and Argentina in the quarter-finals. England beat Fiji 45-24, Scotland overcame Samoa 35-20, and Argentina caused the biggest upset by beating Ireland 28-24 in a thriller to reach the final stage for the first time.

In the first quarter-final, Australia dispatched Wales 24-9 in a masterful display of controlled rugby. First-five Stephen Larkham provided the decisive kick through for Ben Tune to score and the effortless win showed the Wallabies were peaking at the right moment.

Dropped goals had proved decisive at the previous World Cup in South Africa but the England versus South Africa match produced a record that may never be broken. No player had previously kicked more than three dropped goals in a test until Springboks pivot Jannie de Beer slotted five successive goals between the 43rd and 74th minutes. The blitzkrieg through England's posts destroyed the home team, who were well in the game trailing just 16-15 before de Beer's onslaught.

Argentina proved worthy opponents for France, who finally showed some of their legendary attacking flair. France led 17-0 after just 11 minutes but captain Pichot scored a smart try to lift Argentina's spirits. The score was 30-26 to France with 15 minutes left before two late tries cemented the 47-26 victory.

France's opponents in the semifinal would be either New Zealand or Scotland. No one really believed the Scots could beat the All Blacks for the first time, and despite a brave performance they were beaten 30-18, with Umaga (2), Wilson and Lomu crossing for tries.

The semifinals were both played at Twickenham over successive days. Australia and South Africa contested what became a war of attrition. The two highly skilled teams could not manage a try between them. Australia won 27-21 with Matt Burke kicking eight penalties and Larkham his first dropped goal in an international, to de Beer's six penalties and drop goal. Larkham's effort realistically sealed the match in the third minute of the second period of extra time.

The All Blacks were red hot favourites to beat France and looked unbeatable after the incomparable Lomu crossed for his second try early in the second spell for a 24-10 lead. But rather than capitulating as they had done in the past, France took control to score 33 unanswered points. First-five Christophe Lamaison kicked two drop goals and two penalties to close the gap to 24-22 before France scored three remarkably well-taken tries.

Wilson scored a late consolation try to go past John Kirwan's New Zealand try-scoring record, but the 43-31 loss was a devastating blow to the All Blacks and their disbelieving supporters.

Just four days later the All Blacks had to regroup for the third place play-off against the Springboks in Cardiff. Not surprisingly the game was average with the only try scored by Springboks winger Breyton Paulse in their 22-18 victory.

The Wallabies were meticulously organised and had superb on-field leaders in their 35-12 victory in the final over the leg-weary French. Fullback Burke missed just two from 11 attempts with the boot, while combative flanker Owen Finegan scored one try and set up the other for prolific winger Tune.

The Wallabies were relatively untested in winning their second William Webb Ellis trophy; much to the chagrin of the All Blacks, who could not believe what the French did to them in that blistering second half performance at Twickenham in the defining action of the 1999 Rugby World Cup.

The outcome: The All Blacks lost their semifinal 43-31 to France at Twickenham

Boil it down to the last half-hour at what the English are wont to call "HQ".

Until the second half of their semifinal, it all seemed plain sailing for the All Blacks at the 1999 World Cup.

They had eased through their pool group and got past Scotland in an uninspiring quarter-final - albeit having lost the second half 15-5 - to move into the last four.

This was after spending a few days on the French Riviera for a spot of R and R.

First question: did the players take their eye off the ball in that period of down time, and did it hurt them against far tougher opponents in the semifinal?

They did have a 10-day break between putting a ton on Italy and facing the Scots, due to the peculiarities of the schedule. Still, they were back in the bubble for a week before the semifinal.

Early in the second half against the French, the All Blacks were 24-10 up. Then a combination of factors got them.

The French got dirty, eye gouging All Blacks on more than one occasion. The All Blacks were under orders to keep their dukes down despite the provocation and leave justice to be handed out by the officials.

Had they blown up, it might have brought the nasty stuff into the open and, instead of fanning the flames, snuffed it out.

Of more relevance, France suddenly got on a roll.

First five-eighths Christophe Lamaison, in the space of 10 minutes, kicked two drop goals and two penalties. A 14-point cushion became two in a blink.

Then their backs ran wild, the All Blacks panicked, forgot their lines and it all went badly wrong to the point where they couldn't get back on the horse.

There was one moment, as the players gathered in a huddle, when they looked bewildered. No one was speaking. Shellshock had set in.

There was also the unusual selection of Christian Cullen at centre for the tournament.

Cullen was a sensational fullback, so why was he not played there leaving Jeff Wilson, an outstanding wing, in his best spot?

Instead Tana Umaga got the wing job opposite Lomu. It seemed a case of having to fit all the stars in by some means or another.

The reaction back home was appalling, and cast the rugby nation in the poorest of lights. After all, it was not as if France were a team of pickles.

They had class players throughout and if their methods didn't always appeal, there wasanother opportunity for the All Blacks in four years.

The Breakdown
Pool B
Ashton Gate, Bristol, October 3
New Zealand v Tonga: 45-9
Referee: W D Bevan, Wales
Half-time score: 16-9
For New Zealand
Tries: B T Kelleher (1), J A Kronfeld (1), J T Lomu (2) N M Maxwell (1)
Conversions: A P Mehrtens (4)
Penalties: A P Mehrtens (4)
For Tonga
Penalties: S Taumalolo (3)

Twickenham, London, October 9
New Zealand v England: 30-16
Referee: P L Marshall, Australia
Half-time score: 13-6
For New Zealand
Tries: B T Kelleher (1), J T Lomu (1), J W Wilson (1)
Conversions: A P Mehrtens (3)
Penalties: A P Mehrtens (3)
For England
Tries: P R de Glanville (1)
Conversions: J P Wilkinson (1)
Penalties: J P Wilkinson (3)

McAlpine Stadium, Huddersfield, October 14
New Zealand v Italy: 101-3
Referee: J M Fleming, Scotland
Half-time score: 51-3
For New Zealand
Tries: T E Brown (1), C M Cullen (1), D P E Gibson (1), M G Hammett (1), J TLomu (2), D G Mika (1), G M Osborne (2), T C Randell (1), S M Robertson (1), J W Wilson (3)
Conversions: T E Brown (11)
Penalties: T E Brown (3)
For Italy
Penalties: D Dominguez (1)

Quarter-Final, Murrayfield, Edinburgh, October 24
New Zealand v Scotland: 30-18
Referee: E F Morrison, England
Half-time score: 25-3
For New Zealand
Tries: J T Lomu (1), T J F Umaga (2), J W Wilson (1)
Conversions: A P Mehrtens (2)
Penalties: A P Mehrtens (2)
For Scotland
Tries: A C Pountney (1), C A Murray (1)
Conversions: K McK Logan (1)
Penalties: K McK Logan (1)
Drop goals: G P J Townsend (1)

Semi-Final, Twickenham, London, October 31
France v New Zealand: 43-31
Referee: J M Fleming, Scotland
Half-time score: 10-17
For New Zealand
Tries: J T Lomu (2), J W Wilson (1)
Conversions: A P Mehrtens (2)
Penalties: A P Mehrtens (4)
For France
Tries: P Bernat-Salles (1), R Dourthe (1), C Lamaison (1), C Dominici (1)
Conversions: C Lamaison (4)
Penalties: C Lamaison (3)
Drop goals: C Lamaison (2)

Third Place Play-off, Millennium Stadium, Cardiff, November 4
South Africa v New Zealand: 22-18
Referee: P L Marshall, Australia
Half-time score: 16-12
For New Zealand
Penalties: A P Mehrtens (6)
For South Africa
Tries: B J Paulse (1)
Conversions: H W Honiball (1)
Penalties: H W Honiball (3)
Drop goals: P C Montgomery (2)

Legends of the Cup: Part two

1999:
Video: Great World Cup moments - 1999

Setting the scene: Big shift when the game turned pro

Tournament action: Sacre bleu! France demolish All Blacks

How we won it: Australia - 'Trust gave us belief'

All Black memories: 'In reality we were a team of individuals'

Aussies didn't need a curfew

Tournament star: John Eales - King John's coronation

- NZ Herald

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