Across the proud history of matches between New Zealand and France, the understanding is, that ‘the All Blacks bring out the best in French rugby’.
Hugely competitive matches, combative at times and with highs and lows for each side. This includes Rugby World Cup wins, upset results, but along with many many magical moments.
Ahead of the 2018 Steinlager Series; starting on Saturday June 9 at Eden Park, we look at some of the highlights of this fearsome rivalry.
All Blacks bring out the best in French rugby
That sentence can be inverted; that France bring out the best in the All Blacks. Such is the respect, and the desire to triumph over the other. It takes plenty to hold off the opponent at home or away. And in 2018, this challenge will be a three-test series in New Zealand.
The Ledger: NZLvFRA
Played: 58 times New Zealand wins: 42 France wins: 12 (21% success rate)
Matches played in New Zealand: 28 French rugby wins: 4 (15%)
The above statistics are factual only. It shows that France have won a handful of matches in New Zealand; the most recent being in 2009. And while their record is not as strong as Australia and South Africa on NZ soil, the rarity of the matches have demonstrated an ‘unpredictability’ of French rugby.
At home in France, they have won six matches. Add in those celebrated victories at neutral Rugby World Cup venues (see below), and that evidence is what gives French rugby it’s great pedigree.
France first toured New Zealand in 1961. And as stated by Wikipedia, they were the first of the home nations to travel ‘downunder’. Unsuccessful in many early attempts until a fateful day, in 1979.
Bastille Day – first Test victory in New Zealand
While it had taken many years to achieve, the 1979 fixture at Eden Park was a memorable one. Coinciding with the national day for France, the team played above themselves, and met the challenge laid down by the Haka. It was unforeseen. It was not expected, and it went against all New Zealand public thinking.
Some will say the 19-24 result was a shock, but in the 1970s the two teams would contest many of the most combative matches. France were successful on home soil, but a victory away to New Zealand, sent waves through World Rugby.
Tries by new halfback Jerome Gallion, first five-eighth Alain Caussade, classy centre Didier Cordonious and wing Jean-Luc Averous did the trick. Up 10-24, they hung on as the home side staged a mini-comeback. As the whistle was blown, there were scenes of unbridled delight.
Captain Jean-Pierre Rives said of the emotion he felt after the result, “one felt very small … in our minds and in our hearts it is engraved forever”.
And yet as good as that performance was, it was another 15 years before the French would enjoy more success. Although, when they would did do it, it was superb!
The try from the end of the World.
If you have never heard this phrase, then Google it. Phillip Saint Andre gave the try its place in folklore, saying “It was a counter attack from the end of the world.” A suitable expression, after they had literally stolen a rare series win out from the grip of defeat.
Passion and Panache can transform Les Bleus on the rugby field
France had toured New Zealand in 1994, with hopes of preparing for the upcoming 1995 Rugby World Cup. However, it is this series which has become legendary. The first series victory, accomplished by a group who at the time, were not a respected side. Very much hardly anticipated as a challenge to the All Blacks. Yet, it showed [to all rugby fans] how any side written off at the International level, could trouble even the number one ranked side.
With the All Blacks leading 20-16, and just three minutes left, few would have anticipated the following movement – wing Saint Andre gathered a deep kick, before it went through eight more pairs of hands with pace and panache, that surprised the hosts. Full of self confidence, such as big flanker Abdel Benazzi breaking his way up the middle of the park.
Classy wing Emile N’tamack fainted right, as the defence seemed to be mesmerised by the French. Flanker Laurent Cabannes passed the ball quickly to the left, with halfback Guy Accoceberry; who could have crossed himself, sharing the ball to fullback Jean-Luc Sadourny. He finished the play, for one of the game’s most famous tries.
It was in the type-cast place as ‘no threat’ that France were also able to emerge from that, with newfound self respect. After they had been beaten in 1986 by the so-called ‘Baby Blacks’ a visit by the French was initially taken too lightly. However, after the first test in 1994, and the series loss – that would never occur again.
And by rights, this 2018 All Blacks squad will have a fuller respect for the French rugby team, taken from the 1994 result (as well as several upsets along the way).
Pre-2011 Rugby World Cup success, French rugby held an edge
Prior to the redemption of the All Blacks in 2011, they had one ‘bogey team’. Opposition fans knew that when France were drawn against New Zealand, the chances were higher, that an unforeseen outcome could play-out.
Not a fond memory for Kiwis, between 1999 and 2010, there were five separate victories across the globe. Two matches on French soil, two in the United Kingdom, and one additional game in New Zealand. Over this period, it is a success rate few other sides can enjoy. And that knowledge is pleasing to the French rugby fan.
This is what promotes the game further in French rugby – that the junior players can know that unlike a majority of International rugby teams, they can represent a team that has regularly defeated the All Blacks. Just as the side did in 2009. Much to the chagrin of the locals.
New Zealand 22 France 27
This particular match was neither in an World Cup cycle, or in a planned period of advancement by either side. The All Blacks were missing Dan Carter and Richie McCaw, as a new French rugby coaching group were looking to reinforce an amount of self belief. But what they brought with them was an assured belief that was ‘out of the box’.
Even in the post match press conference, fearless leader Thierry Dusautoir showed that self confidence which is displayed by all French. Be it fashion, music or sports – the French are a champion culture. Football, motorsport or in horse racing, their competitive spirit on that day meant that Dusatoir and his team mates would not be overshadowed by Brad Thorn or Mils Muliaina.
They played for, and received a victory that was unpredicted but well earned.
This is the similarity to the 2018 tour. One where unpredictability is going to play a big part. Aside from the leading players like Mathieu Bastereaud and Maxime Medard, it is the new players, the young French rugby stars who might well wish most to ‘strike a new path’. To write their names onto the fables of French rugby. As a team who believe they can challenge, and defeat New Zealand.
Defeating New Zealand at home ‘not an everyday task’
While every boyhood dream, the reality is that much harder. Near impossible too – and the limited success is proof of that. If the 2018 French rugby team have an self belief, then they could hold some hope of an victory. But over a three Test series, the chances are that the first and second tests will determine the series outcome. It means that for the opening two games, it must be ‘all or nothing’ for Les Bleus.
Against New Zealand, the challenge is harder. With such a high success rate, the World Champions do not fail often. Especially at home, where they are ‘near unbeatable’. But too, the rewards would also be greater.
So might that inspiration push French rugby to another famous win? Few know for sure. But others will have heart. Others will still dream, and those far-fetched dreams might well come true on Saturday. If so, that would continue the ‘dream run’ that French rugby have had, against the All Blacks.