France storm into World Cup final
October 31, 1999
Christophe Lamaison crosses to score
© Getty Images
It should have been impossible to surpass the drama of yesterday but this match made the Wallaby win look like poor pantomime in comparison. France looked down and out in London trailing by fourteen points early in the second-half only to come off the ropes and hand the All Blacks the mother and father of pastings. After today future generations of New Zealand children will be sent to bed with the warning, "or else Benazzi/Magne/Lamaison/Galthie will come to get you.
France caused an upset of titanic proportions to bring this tournament the north-south final everyone had hoped for. In doing so they confounded the bookies, the press and the All Blacks who will never again believe all they read in print.
Two early penalties to Christophe Lamaison and Andrew Mehrtens, the latter only at his third attempt, calmed the early nerves which afflicted both sides. Jim Fleming's spate of penalties, mostly for offside, suggested that the referee had opted for prevention over cure. The All Blacks had the best of a swirling wind but Mehrtens seemed hesitant when kicking from hand and both Xavier Garbajosa and Lamaison did well to pin the Blacks back in their own half with some booming kicks.
However New Zealand's number nine Byron Kelleher was a constant threat to the French. His break left Jeff Wilson with only the fullback to beat but Wilson over stepped once too far in his head and ran straight into his opposite number. New Zealand settled for a Mehrtens penalty.
France responded as only they can. Centre Dourthe fed his left wing Christophe Dominici who scampered up the wing between Cullen and Umaga. The Frenchman was only halted under the posts after Cullen covered back. Still France recycled the ball for Lamaison to stroll under the sticks for a try which the number ten then converted. Mehrtens had pulled three points back when the big man struck. Lomu picked up Cullen's pass from his toes and set off forty yards out. Five or six Frenchmen attempted to stop him but they might as well have tried to stop a buffalo on heat and Lomu scored his seventh try of the tournament.
France were unimpressed and twice in the next five minutes they crossed the All Black line only to be thwarted at the last. A kick and chase by Dominici was shepherded dead. Just minutes later Olivier Magne showed indecent haste in rounding Mehrtens before asking Bernat-Salles to chase his grubber kick over the New Zealand line. Referee Fleming decided that Jeff Wilson beat the flying Frenchman to the ball but the French might watch the replay with interest as the "auld alliance" is likely to be strained.
Although there was only four points in the score there was a feeling that France were having to sprint flat out just to keep up with the Kiwis. Certainly the unhealthy penalty count showed they were getting on the wrong side of Mr Fleming. Mehrtens, looking thoroughly ill at ease, did manage a touchline penalty, before missing another on the half-time whistle. This was the fourth he'd fluffed in the opening forty, but still the All Blacks enjoyed a less than convincing seven point lead at the break. La France may have been giving up penalties like Halloween candy but they did have the consolation of scoring in addition to two close calls.
A poor clearance from Lamaison only four minutes later found Wilson in space and the winger swapped passes with Lomu. Again the French backs stood off the giant. Only scrum-half Galthie felled him but not until Lomu was over the line. Mehrtens gave the Kiwis a 14 point advantage. The French were in danger of losing the plot but instead they insisted on grabbing centre stage and hogging the limelight for the next ten minutes. The forwards, with Benazzi always in the vanguard, took the game right to the All Black forwards. This enabled Christophe Lamaison to kick two drop goals and two penalties in the space of eight minutes to close the gap to five points.
This five point gap was then bridged by winger Dominici who was having the game of his life. Scrum-half Galthie chipped ahead and a mixture of a favourable bounce and a woeful tackle by Mehrtens allowed the winger to collect the kick and scamper over the line. Lamaison converted. Worse was to follow for the men in Black. The blue forwards didn't so much have the bit between their teeth, rather they looked willing to swallow the entire opposition. Again they drove at the heart of the Kiwi defence and when they released the ball Richard Dourthe won the race to Lamaison's expertly weighted chip into the danger zone. If the fly-half could add tackling to his resume he would be crowned King of France today, he was perfect in every other respect. His conversion meant that France had scored an astonishing twenty six points in just thirteen minutes. Why France then opted to kick a penalty for an attacking lineout, which they duly lost, rather than stretch their lead beyond fourteen points nobody in the press box could fathom? With twenty odd minutes to play the game was still there for the winning.
The All Blacks pressed but they were unaccustomed to the pressure applied by France and when Tana Umaga spilled a pass Magne was on hand to flyhack ahead. The flanker didn't quite have the gas but Philippe Bernat-Salles has more than the North Sea. The speedy winger outpaced Jeff Wilson to the ball and this time Fleming gave the score. The French players were already celebrating an astonishing win and with just five minutes to play they were well within their rights. Wilson did scramble under the posts for a score on the stroke of fulltime which Mehrtens couldn't help but convert. However, the horse was well gone and that was the final act of an utterly unique sporting moment.
Les Blues did a lap of honour and every neutral in the stands applauded the bravest performance yet seen, probably in the history of this competition. Lamaison scored a remarkable 28 points and didn't miss a single kick at goal. Undoubtedly the All Blacks underestimated their opponents today whatever they will say and paid the hefty price of another four years of frustration until they can make ammends. They lost too much set piece ball, especially lineouts, and only in Lomu did they have a match winner. By the end their indestructable image was in tatters as the cracks Scotland exposed were ruthlessly exploited by a French side heartily sick of listening to the press write them off. Lessons all round I suppose.
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