France inspired by player power

RUGBY UNION: Home victories for Five Nations rivals cannot disguise a gulf in ability and commitment between the two teams
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reports from Toulouse

France 22 New Zealand 15

It would be stretching things to believe that, by means of a glorious Armistice Day victory over the All Blacks, French rugby had become a family at peace again, if indeed it ever was. But this first Test, its acid prelude and its joyous aftermath, have been a triumph for the players and thus for player-power.

Considering that the source of last week's contention was the exclusion of three leading players from selectorial consideration, France did brilliantly well without them - so well that the same XV, still without Lacroix, Roumat and Cabannes, were yesterday reselected for the second Test in Paris this Saturday.

How strange, how quintessentially French. The team, ring-led by their captain, Philippe Saint-Andre, were so incensed that the three who had been playing in South Africa had been forced by the French federation to "rest" for a month after their return from South Africa that they ostentatiously stayed away from a civic reception in Toulouse on Thursday.

That persuaded Andre Herrero it was time to resign as team manager and persuaded the team, in an infinitely more significant act of solidarity than their boycott of the bunfight, to turn themselves into a more or less irresistible force.

The upshot was not only a quite unforgettable win on an occasion touched by Gallic magic but a performance that rendered the "South Africans" (as they are known here) unnecessary, even though their rest period will have officially ended by the time France and New Zealand conduct their reprise at Parc des Princes. There, the French, already the first since Australia in 1978 and `79 to beat New Zealand three times in a row, will seek to be the first to make it four since South Africa whitewashed the 1949 All Blacks.

So France were inspired, but not merely by the esprit de corps that had been produced by their stand-off with the federation. There was also a raw fear created by the knowledge that, if they collapsed as other French teams might have done in such circumstances, Bernard Lapasset, their president, would have had his excuse for revenge.

"For three days my head has been on the block," Saint-Andre sighed, relieved as well as delighted to have avoided the anticipated defeat that would have ended his international career, as well as those of other senior players who had acted as his lieutenants in the internecine contretemps.

If anyone could exploit the incipient disarray, you would have thought it to be the All Blacks. That it did not happen was, of course, a tribute to the French, but it also betrayed the astounding incompetence of a side made ordinary by the loss of vital components of their World Cup final XV.

In mitigation, it is fair to point out how difficult it was to play accurate rugby in the conditions prevailing at the Parc Toulousain, a gale known as the Vent d'Autan howling in from the south-west, rocking the posts and giving an insurmountable advantage to the downwind team. This wind is also called "le vent des fous", or the wind that drives you mad, and it duly drove the All Blacks to distraction as they conceded 17 points after Sean Fitzpatrick had generously allowed France its first use.

The All Blacks contributed with continuing generosity to their own downfall, turning the ball over to set up the attack with which Jean-Luc Sadourny scored the sumptuous first try, then presenting a second when Richard Dourthe charged down Simon Culhane's clearance.

The hapless Culhane was later to have another kick charged down as a prelude to the concluding and conclusive French try by Saint-Andre, and if New Zealand had one overriding problem it was at half-back, where Culhane was ill-served by the equally erratic Stuart Forster. The scrum-half's inability to spin quick ball meant that the wide game that so impressed during the World Cup was no more than a memory.

It did not take the No 8, Zinzan Brooke, long to work out the adverse consequences of giving Forster too much of the ball, which meant a deliberately restricted forward game reminiscent of All Blacks of old rather than Laurie Mains's brave new world of total rugby. The coach blamed it all on persistent French offside but, whatever the worth of that remark, he might just as well have complained about the woeful skill level exhibited by his own players.

To be outscored by three tries to none was to heap indignity on to disappointment, but the fact was that, with Jonah Lomu so peripheral a figure that the crowd took to singing in unison "Ou est Lomu, ou est le grand Lomu?" (Where is the big Lomu?), they seldom looked like getting off the mark.

Culhane managed one first-half penalty and then added four more as the All Blacks steadily reduced France's 14-point half-time lead to the point where 18 minutes still remained when it was down to 17-15. But at the moment of greatest crisis Saint-Andre pulled his men together and, not withstanding a foot that may have been in touch, eluded Lomu for the try that settled the match and also brought the house down.

With the end came delirium, and as the Tricolours took their lap of honour a rapturous expression of the sense of unity between them and their public who, like supporters everywhere else, tend to identify with their playing heroes more than any old farts. (In the federation's case, there are 35.)

It is a matter of shared experience. When France last played a Test here, and lost to the 1986 All Blacks, Toulouse were the champions but had no one in the French team and a derisory 13,800 turned up to watch. Toulouse are the 1995 champions too and on Saturday, with five Toulousains among the starters, 35,000 filled the stadium. It was a privilege to be among them.

France: Tries Sadourny, Dourthe, Saint-Andre; Conversions Castaignede 2; Penalty Castaignede. New Zealand: Penalties Culhane 5.

FRANCE: J-L Sadourny (Colomiers); E N'Tamack (Toulouse), R Dourthe (Dax), T Castaignede (Toulouse), P Saint-Andre (Montferrand, capt); A Penaud (Brive), P Carbonneau (Toulouse); L Benezech (Racing Club), M de Rougemont (Toulon), C Califano (Toulouse), O Merle (Montferrand), F Pelous (Dax), P Benetton, A Benazzi (Agen), A Carminati (Brive). Replacement: D Berty (Toulouse) for Sadourny, 45.

NEW ZEALAND: J Wilson (Otago); E Rush, F Bunce, W Little (North Harbour), J Lomu (Counties); S Culhane (Southland), S Forster (Otago); C Dowd, S Fitzpatrick (capt), O Brown, R Brooke (Auckland), I Jones, B Larsen (North Harbour), Z Brooke, M Jones (Auckland). Replacement: G Osborne (North Harbour) for Wilson, 53.

Referee: P Marshall (Australia).