James Lawton: Uncorked vintage of '99 can inspire fresh explosion of French speed and panache

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The Independent Online

The sky above Twickenham seemed to be made of steel when it happened eight years ago but then, who knows, on the 20th of next month Paris might just be dressed in its most heart-breakingly beautiful clothes.

The air might be as crisp as a good Burgundy in the pale sunshine as they prepare to play the final of the sixth Rugby World Cup and if it should happen that the opposing teams are the hosts France and the favourites New Zealand it could be that the adolescent rival to football's huge global impact every four years will reach beyond the demand for competitive maturity.

Perhaps something more stirring – and unforgettable – will be conjured in the autumn night.

What the game's cognoscenti have in mind is potentially the most arresting spectacle in the 20-year history of the tournament. Maybe, just, maybe, it could be the greatest rugby match we will ever have seen.

The Twickenham semi-final of 1999 was a masterpiece, no doubt, an explosion of French speed and panache which overwhelmed the rhino power of the All Blacks represented so volcanically by Jonah Lomu, but ultimately it was flawed.

It was a semi-final, a crescendo rather than a climax, and when the final test came the French had become mortals again. The Australians, winning their second title, simply cuffed them aside.

This time the French, the enigmatic, the tortured but still potentially sublime French, know that an appearance in the final is an invitation to go beyond all limits.

What would there be to hold back? A little sinew, a little extended effort for fear of leaving something vital beneath the mountain top? No, there would be one imperative only. It would be to tease out and test every hint of vulnerability that has come to the All Black team that two years ago against the Lions looked as though it had defined a new game of speed and power and, in their superb outside half Daniel Carter, attacking imagination.

But unlike the dwindling against Australia, for whom John Eales had so much of the ball he did well not to swallow it, the new drama would be played out before an audience made impassioned by every hint of French virtuosity.

In Cardiff the French could not stop themselves becoming becalmed. At the Stade de France it would be a national shame.

Gareth Edwards, who for many remains the best rugby player they have seen, believes that the French can do it. There is, of course a little mysticism in his view, but then he is Welsh and he is considering the French. In the way they run with the ball, these are first-cousin nations, but it is no slight on the Welsh and their wonderful tradition to say that with the French there is something more. It is something hard to chart, something that can erupt so quickly you have to see it as an emanation of national genius and it was maybe summed up best when the great back row forward Jean Prat dropped two goals against England and one of his team-mates proudly said to the English press who had christened the hero, Monsieur Rugby, "But what is a small miracle to a man born in Lourdes?"

Another Welshman, another great half-back, Jonathan Davies was encountered in the wake of that extraordinary semi-final victory at Twickenham. He breathed deeply and said, "That was probably the best rugby match I have ever seen." It was a match, if you remember, that took us on to another plane of rugby possibilities. Four years earlier in Cape Town Lomu had destroyed England in another semi-final. He had charged to the corner for an unanswerable try as defenders fell from him like banderillas clumsily placed in the back of a fighting bull.

When he did almost precisely the same against the French, then repeated the awesome deed, it seemed inevitable that the consequences would be the same. Then the French found something that was utterly spellbinding. Christophe Dominici scored a stupendous try. The French ran and passed and kicked so cunningly the All Blacks were at first besieged, then quickly broken.

Can it happen again, can Les Bleus storm the New Zealand battlements after the most rousing version of "La Marseillaise"? Can we be reminded of how it was nine years ago when their football counterparts overwhelmed Brazil in the same Stade de France to win 3-0 for the World Cup, when police cars were still flying the tricolours and having their horns tooted in the dawn, when there was a fear that they might run out of whiskey and hot dogs in Harry's Bar and the Left Bank rocked as it had never since De Gaulle braved the snipers along the Champs-Élysées.

Yes, of course they can. Certainly they are in much better shape than when they moved the earth under the threat of the mighty Lomu.

Coach Bernard Laporte may be an enigma lodged in a paradox but from time to time he has been able to inject steel into his men and even if some of his selections have been bemusing, over the course of a seven-game crusade it is inconceivable that he will not invest in the sometimes elusive but always potentially brilliant talent of Freddy Michalak at fly-half – and release the 23 year-old Yannick Nyanga, a phenomenon that many good judges believe is now itching to happen. There is a quality running like a vein of gold through the French that can only be the envy of England's coach Brian Ashton, for whom the latest injury doubts around Jonny Wilkinson can only be another invitation to despair.

For England the honour, after the wasted years that followed their superbly motivated triumph in Sydney four years ago, would be to fight their way into the semi-finals. It is a possibility, though, that looks more remote the more you consider the struggles of Ashton to give a new team some of that old conviction, that hard certainty that the goal of victory should never be confused with some need to play prettily.

That England of Martin Johnson and Lawrence Dallaglio and Wilkinson broke in the semi-final a French team which had believed fervently in its ability to repair the disappointment of '99. Long after the crowd had cleared the stadium, the French scrum-half Fabien Galthié, who had been involved in the drama of Twickenham and was playing his fourth World Cup, sat looking into the middle distance.

He said, "What we lived through in '99 was extraordinary, but it was a little bit chaotic. This time we believed it was our destiny to win. We believed we had learned all the lessons and were strong where before we had been weak. We knew about the strength of England, but then we felt we could deal with all of that."

No doubt the new France are also aware of All Black strength. It rampaged in France last year when coach Graham Henry waged a psychological war that included the sparing use of the luminous Carter and the French were duly humbled on their own soil. But then the All Blacks do have a background of leaving some of their best work at the gates of the World Cup – one win, in 1987, in five attempts is a travesty of potential – and defeat in Tri-Nations action in Melbourne has raised familiar doubts about their ability to deliver when it matters most.

Such reservations will no doubt inspire such as the ferocious captain Richie McCaw and Carter, whose basic challenge is to prove that he is indeed one of the greatest rugby players of all time, and it is not so easy arguing with the the bookmakers' assessment that New Zealand are 4-9 favourites. There are other threats to the reawakening of that dream game at Twickenham. South Africa, at 6-1, have found again some of that cussed belief that they are rugby's true, born winners and the 12-1 Australians have reason to feel some familiar stirrings of ambition.

Can the Irish intrude significantly into the action, can Brian O'Driscoll rally the bones most recently abused by a French club side – and can Wales pluck from somewhere the glint of promise they produced when driving England almost to the wall in a quarter-final in Brisbane four years ago? There is is another, maybe less dreamy question and it is implicit in the recent assault on O'Driscoll. It is about whether rugby can claim the big stage as a truly grown-up sport, one that is aware of its power and its beauty and has determined to show its best and most shining face.

France and New Zealand have already once shown quite how superbly this can be done. It is a memory that needs to be re-charged, a bottle that has to be re-opened. The hunch here is that in the end the toast will be to the French. The Stade de France, after all, is not so far from Burgundy and for all its body and its brilliant strength, we know now that the All-Black vintage doesn't travel so well.

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