By Adrian Porter
TWICKENHAM, ENGLAND, 2 November 1999 - France's 43 -
31 victory over New Zealand in the semi-finals of the rugby World Cup
tournament has been described as the greatest game of rugby ever
played and the most colossal upset in the history of sport.
composed superlatives like these obviously lack a considered review of
other dramatic encounters of the past but there is no doubt that what
was a truly breath-taking game will figure large in the annals of
The major factor in making such a judgement
rests largely on the fact that France not only beat the mighty All
Blacks - the side most fancied to win the Cup - but it beat all the
other odds as well.
As bottom of the league in last year's
championship of the five European nations, it was one of the
undisputed underdogs of the tournament with only an outside chance of
making even the quarter-finals.
When the Frenchmen did reach
the semi-finals they were said to have done so by default - because
they had faced and beaten only minor sides in the run-up to the
meeting with New Zealanders.
So, when they ran on to the
field at Twickenham they had already been written off as a team devoid
of determination, riven by dissent over its selection and lacking
dynamism from either players or management.
What had been
forgotten but what became evident from the moment the Frenchmen stood
erect, proud and emotional as they sang their anthem, "La
Marseillaise", at the start of the game, was the deep fervour of
their inborn nationalism and desire to achieve victory not just for
themselves but for their country. They sang "La Marseillaise"
like the cry to battle that it is.
This particular battle saw
a revived France right from the start. The flair, speed and innovation
for which their teams had always been renowned was once again on view.
forwards actually pushed their way through the phalanx of a normally
impregnable New Zealand defence and then fed fast ball to the backs.
Then, instead of trying to break through a hastily reconstructed wall
of defence, the French backs would use short high kicks to clear a way
over it and run swiftly to retireve the ball.
Not for the
French either, the staid old tactic of winning the ball in the scrum
and then holding it in there to keep New Zealand forwards occupied
while the backs decided what to do or while flank forwards tired
unsuccessfully to bulldoze their way through. Instead, the ball was
cleared as quickly as possible and slung out to the backs already on
It was decisive, incisive play which made the All
Blacks falter and make defensive mistakes at crucial moments to allow
the French to break through.
Naturally, it was not all one
way. The New Zealanders also paraded their prowess with long tactical
kicks and forward rushes but their backs never really got going
against an inspired French defence.
There was, however, one
typical New Zealand move when their giant left winger, Jonah Lomu,
charged down the field like an enraged rhinoceros leaving six French
defenders either lying on the ground or still hanging from him as he
scored one of his two tries in the match.
responded almost immediately in their own style. Their left winger,
the small, squat and speedy Christophe Dominici, gathered up a loose
ball with a swooping left hand and cut inside two New Zealanders to
score the first of France's four tries. Where Lomu was a rampaging
rhinoceros, Dominici was a lithe leopard.
The Frenchmen set
the seal on their momentous victory when winger Philippe Bernat-Salles
kicked a loose ball most of the length of the pitch to score the last
try five minutes from time.
The New Zealanders were in an
almost palpable state of shock over their defeat but were generous in
their response to the Frenchmen. Their talented flank forward, Josh
Kronfeld, gave his trademark black and white scrum cap to his French
opposite number, Olivier Magne, who, after playing his own
magnificent, mauling game, accepted it like a scalp from a valiant
It was a mark of the Frenchmen's performance that the
Englishmen, who formed the majority of the spectators, rose in tribute
to them - and this at a time when Britain and France are at odds in
something resembling a trade war between the two countries.
it's likely that the British will again be on the side of the French
when they play the Australians in the final at Cardiff.
fact, the drama of the France-New Zealand match overshadowed another
nail-biting encounter between Australia and South Africa in the other
This game failed to offer much in fast, open
rugby and no tries were scored but it made up for this in a titanic
kicking contest between South Africa's fly-half, Janie de Beer, and
the Australian full-back, Matt Burke.
They exchanged penalty
kick for penalty kick. De Beer notched up six for 18 of South Africa's
21 points and got the rest from a from a dropped goal. Burke kicked
eight penalties but the match was effectively won by a dropped goal
from the Australian fly-half, Stephen Larkham - the first time he had
tried such a kick in international rugby.
It was an
exhilarating, close run game throughout. In fact, Australia was
leading by three points only two minutes from full time and were ready
to celebrate when De Beer drilled a penalty goal from an awkward angle
50 yards from the post to level the scores and to force extra time -
ten minutes each way. Then came Larkham's dropped goal to put the
Australians ahead and, finally another penalty goal to get the
Wallabies through to the final.
If the France versus
Australia meeting measures up to the semi-finals it will be another
historic match. And if France wins, then critical vultures will be
feeding from the crumbs of humble pies being eathen by the pundits and
commentators who had got it all so wrong.