Soaked in history and romance it may be, but the Five Nations' Championship still remains secondary in importance to its component parts. Each individual encounter generates and thrives within its own unique atmosphere and Le Crunch, as this particular match always seems to be labelled these days, is way out there on its own. It took France 17 attempts to register their first victory over the English and when it finally came to pass in Paris exactly 70 years ago, the 3-0 scoreline was more prosaic than poetic. Since then, the pendulum of superiority has swung back and forth with compelling unpredictability.
Yet the cataclysmic nature of the fixture has become fully apparent only in the last quarter of a century, from the final match at Stade Colombes when the French chalked up a record victory over Les Rosbifs, through the unforgiving Fouroux era of the 1970s and the muscular English dominance of the early 1990s and into the new age of nip and tuck. Chris Hewett recalls 25 years of epic confrontation through the eyes of some of its most celebrated combatants.
English pride humbled by tunnel vision
France 37 England 12 Stade Colombes, 26 February 1972
Pierre Villepreux fondly describes it as "un rugby de reve", the rugby of dreams, and the Englishmen who suffered untold nightmares at the hands of Walter Spanghero's exquisite French side left Paris in the fervent hope that they would never again be subjected to such torture on the field of Colombes. They were granted that much, for this was the last international played at the famous old stadium, but there was no forgetting the extent of the humiliation.
France scored six tries in what remains their most emphatic victory over England and at the time, the indignity seemed even more wretched than it does today. Never had England conceded so many points in a full international and only once had they lost by such a margin - and that had been 67 years earlier in 1905. It is little wonder that Villepreux, the French full- back, recalls the occasion with a smile.
"On the psychological level it was extremely interesting because the players themselves had made a conscious decision to play totally spectacular running rugby; everything was based on attack, on running the ball and keeping it in the hand. Neither team could win the championship, so there was no pressure on us to get a result. We felt free to try to produce the rugby of which we were capable.
"I clearly remember the expression we used before running on to the field: `We attack from the tunnel'. There was a tunnel at Colombes and you emerged from behind the dead-ball line at one end. That was our image for the day and it was a game in which the result was less important than the way we played.
"Jo Maso, Jean-Claude Skrela, Max Barrau and Walter all had the same conception: quality, not quantity. As it happened, we won well, but it could have gone terribly wrong. It was just that we didn't want to leave the field saying to ourselves: `We didn't dare'."
Scorers: France: Tries B Duprat 2, J-P Biemouret, J-P Lux, J Sillieres, W Spanghero; Conversions P Villepreux 5; Penalty P Villepreux.
England: Try M Beese; Conversion A Old; Penalties A Old 2.
France 13 England 17 Parc des Princes, 2 February 1980
Six victories over France in two decades and barely a sniff of success in Paris since 1964. When Bill Beaumont's strong, single-minded but scarcely tested side pitched up at the Parc for the second match in what would turn out to be a Grand Slam campaign, few outside the confines of the England dressing-room were able to see any further than the then traditional home victory, even though the Tricolores had gone under in Cardiff a fortnight previously.
Peter Wheeler knew better. The England hooker, 18 caps into a magnificent international career, suspected that, not for the first time and certainly not for the last, the French had got it wrong in selection. "I can remember thinking that they'd done the usual, by which I mean that they'd reacted to a defeat by tinkering around positionally and weakened themselves in the process. And when we saw the teamsheet, the evidence was there. There was all sorts of nonsense going on."
Indeed. The French selectors moved Alain Maleig from No 8, where he had played at the Arms Park, into the second row. There were debutants in every row of the scrummage as well as at full-back and the English tight five took full advantage, setting up tries for John Carleton and Nick Preston and two drop goal opportunities for John Horton.
"The whole game plan was based around our pack which, I have to say, was fairly mature. We had some outstanding forwards, most of whom had been around for years but, because our own selection had not been too bright, had not been given the opportunity of playing together," Wheeler recalls.
"It was a hard game: Philippe Dintrans, one of the best hookers I ever confronted, was brought in for the afternoon and that certainly made life awkward. But Bill had grown into the captaincy and was a superb motivator by then and our control was spot on."
Scorers: France Tries J-L Averous, J-P Rives; Conversion A Caussade; Penalty A Caussade.
England: Tries J Carleton, N Preston; Penalty W Hare; Drop goals J Horton 2.
Sweet taste of success for Chilcott
England 11 France 0 Twickenham, 4 March 1989
Gareth Chilcott was always blessed with a graphic turn of phrase - it matched his approach to the game - so perhaps it is best to let Bath's folk-hero prop tell the story.
"At that time, the French had the thumbprint on us. We would go to Paris on a nice spring day, Blanco would fancy it, end of story. But things were beginning to look up; the two previous encounters had been close- run things and we felt that if we could really apply ourselves up front, show concrete discipline - not easy for one or two of us, I'll grant you - and control the ball, we could take them.
"Sure enough, the French forwards showed signs of frustration pretty early and started dishing it out. There was all sorts going on but we soaked it up, got a lucky break in the first half when Will Carling caught their defence flat-footed after a threequarter move of ours went wrong and Andy Robinson tied it up late when we stuck it up our jumpers and worked him over from close range. What pleased me more than anything, though, was that we shut them out, kept them pointless.
"We scrummaged really well that day and rocked them back all afternoon. I was up against Pascal Ondarts, who had a bit of the nitty-gritty about him, while on the other side it was Paul Rendall against Portolan. They'd left out Garuet, a real hard case, because they thought Portolan could do more around the field but as soon as they started struggling in the tight, Portolan discovered a sudden injury and Garuet came trundling on. Paul was fairly depressed about that.
"There was plenty happening at every ruck, maul, line-out and scrum; in those days, you couldn't depend on the touch judges intervening or umpteen different camera angles to warn off the hit men. They had me down as a volatile player - rightly so, I suppose - but I was determined not to retaliate. How did I feel at the end? Tired, but incredibly satisfied."
Scorers: England: Tries W Carling, A Robinson; Penalty R Andrew.
Blanco finds genius beaten by the boot
England 21 France 19 Twickenham, 16 March 1991
Whisper it quietly and do not, on any account, let this slip to Brian Moore. The Grand Slam shoot-out of 1991 may have been an English triumph, a day when Rob and Rory and Teaguey and Deano and the Pitbull himself erased the memory of the Slow Walk at Murrayfield and brought home the bacon, but it was something else too. It was a day when anyone with a heart felt sorry for the French. Yes, sorry.
Go on, admit it. They were desperately hard done by. Inspired gloriously from the back by the great Serge Blanco on his last visit to Twickenham, the visitors outscored England by three tries to one and would, under today's scoring values, have snatched a draw and, on points difference, the championship as well.
Besides, Philippe Saint-Andre's try - The Try - was worthy of winning any championship you care to name. "I think it just summed up the French attitude on the day," says Blanco, who generated the whole wonderful thing from beneath his own posts. "We knew that for several seasons England had developed into a more and more dangerous side, that they were strong defensively and that there was no point in trying to challenge them purely on the physical level. Instead of trying to batter down the wall, we decided to run round them.
"England missed a penalty attempt, Pierre Berbizier fielded the ball behind the goal-line and I called for it. I made as if to touch down but saw that the English hadn't followed up the kick, so I took off." Lafond, Sella and Camberabero all worked the right touchline and when Saint-Andre gathered a delicate cross-chip to score at the posts, the whole of Twickenham knew they had seen genius made flesh.
"The fact that it was my last game at Twickenham never crossed my mind, even when I ran out," Blanco says. "People were predicting that the English would eat us alive, so I was more concerned with proving the contrary. We had a deep-seated conviction that we would remain true to our intuition." But for Simon Hodgkinson's kicking, that intuition would have proved very sound indeed.
Scorers: England: Try R Underwood; Conversion S Hodgkinson; Penalties S Hodgkinson 4; Drop goal R Andrew.
France: Tries P Saint-Andre, D Camberabero, F Mesnel; Conversions D Camberabero 2; Penalty D Camberabero.
Heslop draws the
fire of France
France 10 England 19 Parc des Princes, 19 October 1991
"Fiery," says Paul Ackford, five and a half years on. "Very fiery." And in truth, the World Cup quarter-final collision between two nations almost perfectly matched in all but attitude was as blood-curdling as rugby gets.
The violent images are branded on the memory: the early targeting of Serge Blanco, the excesses of Eric Champ, Nigel Heslop's late tackle on Blanco and summary justice dispensed in a flurry of fists. But what a match, all the same. Perhaps the finest England performance in 20 years was forced from them by the brilliance of the French, a heady brew of iron discipline and commitment overcoming all manner of temperamental extravagance.
"We were incredibly wound up for that game, but the crucial thing for me was that we were able to keep the lid on the passions we all felt," says Ackford, whose command of the line-out in the final quarter was at the very heart of England's victory. "The moment I thought we might have them was when Nigel was decked by those punches early on. No one in a white shirt over-reacted and that indicated to me that we could cope with living on the edge.
"The French could be incredibly physical, so fear was a big motivating factor. The fact that this one was a World Cup quarter-final just added something extra to the atmosphere in the dressing-room because we knew that if we lost, we were out. No one remembers losers, so it was now or never. The tension was extraordinary.
"My line-out performance may have looked good, but the French had a strange habit of throwing in a no-hoper, or a non-jumper at least, against me. I can remember Wade Dooley saying: `How is it you get the easy guys while I get Olivier Roumat?' I wasn't complaining, that's for sure."
After that game, the New Zealand referee David Bishop was manhandled by Daniel Dubroca, the French coach. Somehow, it was of a piece with what had gone before. As they probably say somewhere in Paris, pure frenzy takes a while to die down.
Scorers: France: Try J-B Lafond; Penalties T Lacroix 2.
England: Tries R Underwood, W Carling; Conversion J Webb; Penalties J Webb 3.Reuse content