'A celebration of European rugby'
March 16, 1991
England's Dean Richards challenges for the ball
© PA Photos
England won a spectacular match to achieve their first Grand Slam since 1980. There was French flair aplenty as they ran in three tries but for England, who had blown Championship winning chances in the final matches of 1989 and 1990, this victory provided enormous relief.
The match is best remembered for Philippe Saint-Andre's first half try, which was voted 'Try of the Centenary' when Twickenham celebrated 100 years of international rugby in 2009.
Pundits of the day expected England to win, notwithstanding the perennial capacity of the French to surprise. Under Geoff Cooke 's management, the nucleus of Will Carling's team had been in place for three seasons and had risen from whipping boys to second in the world. Often criticised as boring for playing a tight game, they broke all sorts of try scoring records and only occasionally slipped up, most notably against Scotland a year earlier.
As the best team in Europe, but with no trophies to show for it, they could not risk a repeat of that day at Murrayfield. Carling described "an air of desperation to win" among his men, also acknowledging a great opponent, "Maybe the one thing I am apprehensive about is Blanco". They knew what was at stake and they knew each other's games well enough, this being the only occasion in history that England used the same 15 players for an entire Championship. Not a weak link to be found. Wade Dooley and Paul Ackford would rule the lineout, the back row of Mike Teague, Peter Winterbottom and Dean Richards were to thwart French efforts and make their own surges in the loose. There would be no messing with Messrs Leonard, Moore and Probyn at scrum time.
France, with equally comfortable wins over Scotland, Ireland and Wales, offered a slightly less ruthless pack, but a stellar array of backs, led by Blanco. His pre-match statements expressed a desire for "a celebration of European rugby... to prove something to those southern hemisphere countries who regard themselves as world champions".
£20 tickets were exchanging hands on the black market at £900 a pair the day before the game, but there was excitement and trepidation in equal measure among the lucky 61,000 ticket holders, regardless of what they had paid.
With England 3-0 ahead, Simon Hodgkinson's second penalty attempt drifted away to the right. Pierre Berbizier collected and lobbed the ball to Blanco as everyone began to shape up for a 22 metre drop out, including the BBC television producer. As a result, very few saw Blanco shun the likely option and canter eastwards behind his try line. Gathering pace, he passed to Jean-Baptiste Lafond, who skipped past Rob Andrew and fed on to Philippe Sella.
England had been caught napping. There were gasps as the men in white and the crowd realised what was happening. Sella stepped inside from the right touchline, wrong-footing Probyn and Teague, and passed out to Didier Camberabero, who flashed past Hodgkinson. Camberabero's chip ahead went over Rory Underwood and did for Richards and Winterbottom, before he caught the ball with an outstretched right arm and, seeing off Carling in the process, hoofed the ball infield. Saint-Andre, tearing up the middle of the pitch, calmly waited for the ball to sit up after its second bounce, gathered on the 22 metre line and crashed over for the try under the posts, leaving Jerry Guscott and Richard Hill in his wake.
Rory Underwood crashes over for England © PA Photos
Underwood, who couldn't get more than a finger-tip to Camberabero's chip kick, later explained, "We were just chasing shadows after that.....they had their tails up and were trying to run it from everywhere; we were defending like mad."
England were also calmly accumulating points through Hodgkinson's boot and domination in the loose that saw them awarded 16 scrums to France's six. Underwood was the beneficiary of some efficient work by his back row colleagues, who put him through for his 27th international try.
18-9 up at half time, England started to play for territory as the rain got heavier. France, with nothing to lose, regrouped and when Olivier Roumat won lineout ball that allowed Camberabero to chip ahead and score, the game was wide open again. Xavier Blond's repeated trespassing in England territory was punished by referee Les Peard, who marched England forward a further 10 metres when Blond tugged the official's sleeve. Hodgkinson added the points.
England's discipline and control looked solid as the clock ran down, despite Underwood's retrospective view, but France had one more score in them. With a minute of normal time left Saint-Andre found space, after a quick lineout, to start a move that ended with Frank Mesnel scoring in the corner. A fine try by any reckoning, but one forgotten when considering what went before and, most importantly, the result.
France contributed enormously to the occasion and would have drawn the match if a try had been worth five points, as it became in 1992. To England, the spoils, but not without France examining their every fibre.
The crowd departed glowing in the twin glories of England's much yearned for Grand Slam and Blanco's desired celebration of European rugby - not bad for £20.
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
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