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Rugby World Cup 1999 :
France Triumphs Over New Zealand in Semi-finals

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.

Rapidly 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 rugby football.

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.

French 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 the move.

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.

The French 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 enemy.

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.

And 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.

In fact, the drama of the France-New Zealand match overshadowed another nail-biting encounter between Australia and South Africa in the other semi-final.

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.




Adrian Porter spent a working lifetime as a foreign correspondent for the BBC and other news organisations in various parts of the world. He writes on rugby and cricket for Culturekiosque.com .


Opening article: Rugby World Cup 1999 : Forecasts and a Guide to the Game

Rugby World Cup 1999 : Opening Games Wrap-up

Rugby World Cup 1999 : Second Round Games Wrap-up

Rugby World Cup 1999 : Dirty and Vicious Play

Rugby World Cup 1999 : Argentina Upsets Ireland

Rugby World Cup 1999 : Quarter-finals Wrap-up

Read Adrian Porter's archive articles on the Cricket World Cup

Opening article: Domination is the Name of the Game
Results of 1st Week: A Commonwealth Row and High Tech Foul Up Cricketing Traditions
Results of 2nd Week: Umpires Upset Bookmakers With Excessive Wide Balls
Results of 3rd week: Zimbabwe and Bangladesh topple giants to make "Super Six" round
First week of the "Super Six" Pakistan and South Africa in arm-pumping finish
Second week of the "Super Six" Australia snatches victory from South Africa


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