The loss that ended a generation of All Blacks
February 18, 2014
France skipper Jean Prat presided over their famous win © PA Photos
For Wales it was 1905. For England 1936 and for France 1954. It says a lot about the place of the All Blacks in the game that a first victory over them immediately becomes a hallowed date in national history.
France made that breakthrough 60 years ago this month, on February 27 1954. It was, as it happens, a rare occasion on which the All Blacks did not pack out a stadium. There were only 25,000 spectators in the Stade Colombes, then a much larger ground than the one in use to this day by Racing Metro.
L'Equipe's multi-author history of the French team speculates that many potential spectators were deterred by memories of two years earlier, when a much-fancied group of Bleues were hammered 25-3 by South Africa. And it is also possible that a still largely provincial fanbase already compelled to trek twice a year to the Paris suburbs for Five Nations matches was reluctant to stump up the time and money for a third trip.
And those Five Nations matches were increasingly demanding attention. France were in the early stages of the ascent that took them from pre-war whipping boy to the dominant force in the last 40 years of the Five Nations championship. They had already that season beaten Ireland and Scotland without conceding a point and, in spite of losing to Wales, were to claim their first ever shared title with a final day victory over England.
It is not merely the names in the French team - Jean and Maurice Prat, Lucien Mias, Andre Boniface and Gerard Dufau among them - which summon up another age. So too do the clubs they played for. The majority, including a quintet from current French champions Lourdes including the Prat brothers, whose father had in the 1920s sold the club the land on which its stadium was built, came from clubs which in 2014 are slugging it out in the third level Federale One competition.
Two, including then teenage sensation Andre Boniface, epitome of the concept of French flair, were from Mont de Marsan. Only three came from clubs which 60 years later are members of the TOP 14, and none from Toulouse.
The All Blacks were visiting France for the first time since 1925. It was the end of a long tour, with only the flights home and some matches in North America to come. Back-row forward Bill Clark recalled many years later that "By the time we got to France, we were probably a bit played out."
They lost their warm-up match against a South West select in Bordeaux, where the refereeing of M Taddei of Brive left a deep impression - prop Kevin Skinner recalling half a century later the occasion on which All Black scrum-half Vince Bevan was penalised for 'not straight' before the ball had left his hands.
They had no such complaints about the veteran Welsh referee Ivor David at the Colombes, but were to be undone by a remarkable French defensive display. Prat was later to tell a British journalist that this All Black eight was the best he had played against in a long career.
New Zealand won 32 out of 42 scrums and 46 lines-out to 19. They spent almost three quarters of the match inside the French 22. And yet they could not score, the final 3-0 scoreline replicating their famous defeat at Cardiff 49 years earlier.
It was, the L'Equipe book records when France showed "they also know how to play without the ball". The All Black back rower Bill McCaw has recalled: "We expected French rugby to be open,with the ball being thrown around, but it was the complete opposite. They just stood up and negated everything we did. The forwards dominated, but the backs could not penetrate."
Wing Ron Jarden remembered being beset by "a swarm of swarthy, muscular figures, all of whom looked exactly the same and all of whom appeared to be capable of running like backs."
It was that dynamically aggressive defence - which as the New Zealand journalist John Hayhurst wrote "was something that had been exclusively New Zealand's until this day" - that created the only score for France just before half-time.
Outside-half Guy Bowers - centre of a fierce controversy about his team's playing style earlier in the tour - was mown down in possession by French flanker Henri Domec about 35 metres from his own line. Number eight Robert Baulon dashed down the touchline to within five metres and found the final member of France's breakaway trio, Jean Prat. The French captain still had work to do.
"Though there seemed to be three or four hands holding and clasping Prat,he made a vigorous dive to score," recorded the New Zealand journalist Terry McLean. Prat's conversion attempt from near the touchline came back off the post.
New Zealand attacked for most of a second half Henri Garcia has recalled as "40 interminable minutes", but could not break through. This was a low scoring era, dominated by predatory back row play and the All Blacks were not a terribly creative side - all of their five tries in five international matches were scored by forwards. "Little was ventured and nothing was won," recorded McLean.
New Zealand's likeliest means of scoring was a barrage of drop-goal attempts by their full-back Bob Scott. One, recorded by Hayhurst as being from near halfway, looked on target until it was caught in the wind.
New Zealand started their 1953-54 tour full of optimism against the Southern Counties © Getty Images
Those 25,000 spectators, many of whom, McLean recorded, were still at the ground when the All Blacks left more than an hour after the match had ended, doubtless had a tale to tell clubmates, friends and work colleagues who had chosen not to go.
For France it was a key moment in a decade which would culminate in 1958 in two achievements at that time still beyond the All Blacks - a test win in Cardiff and a series victory in South Africa - followed by their first outright Five Nations title in 1959. For British rugby it was, the former England captain Bert Toft wrote, "Like finding the South Africans or the All Blacks on one's doorstep."
For the majority of the All Black team, it was the end of their Test careers. With much less international rugby played in the 1950s than nowadays, it would be 18 months before the All Blacks played again. The eight who never played again included Bob Stuart, a rare captain whose teams actually enjoyed his post-match oratory and Bob Scott, the brilliant full-back who to this day remains on the shortlist for the title of 'Greatest All Black ever'.
It was also a severe blow to that particular team's reputation. Lindsay Knight has recalled that while losing to Wales - and to a Welsh club, Cardiff - was regarded as no great shame, to be defeated by France was 'remembered as a tragedy'. New Zealanders, still in 1954 among the world's most isolated peoples, had little means of knowing that France was now a seriously competitive team, still less that it would be a rival to match any in the years to come. In the years since, starting on that afternoon at the Stade Colombes on February 27 1954, it has learnt a great deal better.
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