It may well have been the greatest post-war game of rugby full stop, more thrilling than Les Bleus' semi-final victory over Australia in 1987, more passionate even than the Barbarians' legendary triumph over the All Blacks at Cardiff Arms Park a little over a quarter of a century ago. Quite where this explosion of French joie de vivre came from, only Ibanez and his countrymen can tell. Maybe they are as much in the dark as everyone else. But this much is certain: whatever happens against the Wallabies at the Millennium Stadium on Saturday, this Tricolore XV will be held in the same affection as the footballers who won the round-ball World Cup last summer.
To beat the Blacks yesterday, France needed to summon the spirit of Lucien Mias, Jean-Pierre Rives and Serge Blanco. This they achieved, magnificently. Abdel Benazzi and Fabien Pelous brought a Mias-like iron to the forward exchanges, Olivier Magne eclipsed the revered Rives as a buccaneering braveheart and Christophe Dominici ran with all the elan of a Blanco on heat. But they also needed to stop Jonah Lomu, whose two tries - the word "tries" scarcely begins to describe the blockbusting power of his finishing - would, on any other day, have imprinted his name more deeply on the global sporting consciousness.
For almost an hour, it looked as though the big bloke might quell the French uprising single-handedly. His opening score early in the second quarter was special, even by his exalted standards, for two of the three tacklers he brushed aside with merciless contempt were Benazzi and Christophe Juillet, the big-hit merchants in the Tricolore pack. His second, four minutes into the second half, was so ruthless in conception and execution that poor Xavier Garbajosa was rooted to the spot in terror.
By the end, though, the French were piling into Lomu with a venomous enthusiasm wholly absent in their pool fixtures against Canada, Namibia and Fiji. If Fabien Galthie, the Colomiers scrum-half omitted from the original squad, lives to be 100, he will never man the barricades to greater effect than he did yesterday; one tackle on Lomu, in which he hit his target horizontally and fully four feet off the floor, captured the mood of his country's defensive effort.
As for their attacking effort... well, when you're hot, you're hot. France were in desperate need of a decent start and they were given one, first by Benazzi, whose driving game scattered the All Black forwards in all directions, and then by the two Christophes, Dominici and Lamaison, who created a try from the wide blue yonder at the end of the first quarter to establish a 10-6 lead. Lamaison set the ball rolling with a snipe up the narrow channel - a favourite French tactic - and after Dominici had beaten Andrew Mehrtens and Jeff Wilson off his left foot, the outside- half took an intelligent pass from Richard Dourthe to touch down behind the New Zealand posts.
Lomu's immense frame and Mehrtens' right boot reclaimed the initiative before the break, which the All Blacks reached 17-10 to the good and, when the most feared rugby player on the planet struck again, the French looked spent. But they gathered themselves together in the now familiar rugby huddle, stared each other in the eyes and decided that, yes, the moment was still there for the seizing. Thus inspired, they embarked on a scoring spree without precedent in almost a century of All Black history: 33 unanswered points in the space of 27 breathtaking, bewildering minutes.
Once again, Lamaison was the catalyst, dropping a brace of goals to reward some savage driving from Magne, Pelous and Franck Tournaire. Two penalties followed as the All Black discipline began to crumble under the pressure, and then a try for Dominici as Galthie kicked intelligently from a Wilson turn-over and the New Zealand cover got its knickers in an unfathomably complicated collective twist. At 29-24, the French were suddenly in the ringside seats and when Lamaison took advantage of an all-embracing line- out rumble from Olivier Brouzet to chip over a flat defence, Dourthe reacted instantly to claim the killer score.
If the All Blacks were still in the hunt, it was only because of the muscular threat posed by Lomu and his fellow wing, Tana Umaga, whenever they were played into space. It did not happen nearly often enough, though, and when Mehrtens and Umaga got their wires crossed on the French 22, Magne was sufficiently alert and fleet of foot to create the fourth and final Tricolore try for Philippe Bernat-Salles, probably the quickest wing on view, if not the biggest. Lamaison, who had not missed a place kick all afternoon, did the necessary once again by adding the conversion.
Wilson's last-minute reply was wholly irrelevant but, by then, the New Zealanders themselves had become an irrelevance. The increasingly desperate chants of "Black, Black, Black" were overwhelmed by the strains of "La Marseillaise" long before the final whistle and, when Jim Fleming blew for no side, the French gathered together in centre field to share their tears of joy. Besides having earned themselves a tilt at the Webb Ellis Trophy on Saturday, they had secured automatic qualification for the next tournament in 2003. And the All Blacks? A third-place play-off in Cardiff on Thursday night, against the Springboks of all people. Who ever would have imagined it?Reuse content