FRANCE ON THE RWC STAGE
Always the bridesmaid and never the bride, France are the only side to have reached three Rugby World Cup finals without actually winning one. RWC 2011 was the closest they have come yet to achieving world dominance, defying all the odds to push the All Blacks to the limit.
Their heroic 8-7 loss at Eden Park was in stark contrast to the inaugural final at the same venue 24 years earlier, when New Zealand confirmed their status as the best side in the world in what was a one-sided final.
Luckily for France and luckily for rugby lovers around the world, Rugby World Cup 1987 kicked off when full back Serge Blanco was in his pomp. The most majestic of full backs, Blanco battled through injury to score a stunning try that clinched a thrilling semi-final win over Australia.
Three times France came from behind against the Wallabies in one of the great matches of all time. The shame is that only 18,000 spectators were in Sydney’s Concord Oval to see it. Sadly for Les Bleus they were unable to reach such heights in the final and were well beaten, 29-9.
Blanco’s farewell from international rugby, after a 93-cap career, came in the next Rugby World Cup in another match that will always be remembered, if not for the same aesthetic reasons as the Concord Oval classic.
Having topped Pool 4 everything was perfectly poised for them to go one better than in the previous tournament with a home quarter-final tie against arch-rivals England in Paris and a favourable draw against either Scotland or Western Samoa in store for the winners. But England were pumped up for the occasion, and France came out second best in what was an epic, bruising battle.
RWC 1995 was the stage for another France great to say farewell, as Philippe Sella announced his international retirement following his country’s exit at the semi-final stage.
Having won a Test series in three of the toughest environments in world rugby in the years leading up to the tournament in South Africa – Argentina (1992), South Africa (1993) and New Zealand (1994), France certainly had it in them to give Sella the dream send off.
But their campaign only really sparked into life in the dying seconds of the final pool match against Scotland when, with the clock ticking down, Emile Ntamack dived over in the corner to continue their interest in the tournament.
They accounted for Ireland in the quarter-final to set up a semi-final showdown against South Africa. But better-equipped to deal with the monsoon conditions in Durban, the Springboks prevailed 19-15 and France were out.
As the third place play-off winners of four years earlier, France avoided the revamped qualification procedure for RWC 1999 and went through as of right.
In the semi-final they produced the greatest comeback in Rugby World Cup history. France looked down and out at Twickenham, trailing New Zealand 24-10, before going on to score 33 points to the All Blacks’ seven for a 43-31 win. As was the case in 1987 the unpredictable French were unable to back it up in the final, failing to breach a resolute Wallaby defence in a 35-12 defeat.
A northern hemisphere side went on to lift the Webb Ellis Cup at the fifth time of asking in 2003, but it was England, not France, that delivered. France had played some magnificent rugby as well as showing a new-found resolve in defence en route to the knockout stages.
That continued in the quarter-final against Ireland who’d barely had time to draw breath before finding themselves 37 points down with only just over half the match gone. But, once again, the rain came to spoil France’s party in the semi-final against England.
France staged a wonderful tournament in 2007, attracting record attendance and TV audience figures. However the host nation’s unpredictability on the pitch was again in evidence as they kicked off with a shock 17-12 defeat to Argentina who went on to top the pool.
As runners-up, the quarter-final line-up paired France with New Zealand who they defeated 20-18 in a dramatic match in Cardiff. However a second consecutive semi-final loss to England at the Stade de France quickly brought everyone back down to earth.
While defeat to Tonga provided a new low at RWC 2011, much pride was restored by the time the final whistle had sounded on the tournament in New Zealand. A misfiring campaign got back on track in the knockout stages, with revenge for previous losses gained over England in the quarters.
France came out on the right side of a one-point match against Wales in the semi-final but could not repeat the feat a week later against the All Blacks. France, though, left New Zealand with their heads held high.
Half back Jean Marc Doussain became the first player to make his Test debut in a RWC Final when he took to the field with five minutes of the match against New Zealand to go. At 20 years and 253 days, he was the third-youngest player to play a RWC Final.
Blanco’s brilliance – And the crowd went wild … all 18,000 of them. Sydney’s Concord Oval may not be the best-loved of all RWC venues but it staged one of the most magical moments in the history of the tournament when Serge Blanco rounded off a sweeping move to earn France a place in the inaugural final.
Millennium magic – New Zealand were gang tackled out of the 2007 tournament by a France side expertly prepared for the expected All Black onslaught by defence coach Dave Ellis.
Tamed by Tonga – France were lucky to lose 19-14 such was Tonga’s dominance. Despite the shock result, France still managed to limp into the RWC 2011 quarter-finals.
“At one point we were so close to them that they wanted to kiss the New Zealanders but I told them to take it easy.” – France captain Thierry Dusautoir revealed how near his players came to causing an international incident during the Haka face-off in the RWC 2011 Final.
France’s tackle count nudged 200 in their heroic 2007 quarter-final win over New Zealand, with Thierry Dusautoir accounting for some 30 of those.