We talk to stars from the 1989 match between les Bleus and a British & Irish Lions XV

Remembering the day France played the Lions

It was, as it turned out, once-in-a-lifetime stuff.

“Yes, I remember,” says former scrum-half Pierre Berbizier, captain of France that day in 1989. “It was special, because it is the only game France have played against the Lions!”

At the Parc des Princes on 4 October that year, a British & Irish Lions XV took to the field to play an exhibition match in honour of the 200th anniversary of the French Revolution. At the time it was treated as an uncapped game by the Lions, but the match played out like any ‘real’ Test. On a roll after their tour victory in Australia earlier in the year, and despite being shorn of almost all of their pack from that series win, the Lions select triumphed 29-27 against a les Blues side powered by Berbizier, Philippe Sella and Serge Blanco.

At the time, Rugby World (& Post) ran the headline ‘Lions – Coqs of the North’, with writer Bill Mitchell espousing the vitality of the encounter. So taken was he by the match that he wrote of it all: “The superb exhibition that followed makes it essential that the whole affair should be acknowledged as a Lions fixture out of appreciation for the efforts of the players who took part by allowing the names of those who played to be included in all official records of British Isles appearances. Anything else would be pedantic and childish churlishness.”

Today, on the official Lions site, it says of exhibition matches like the one in Paris and an IRB Centenary match in 1986, that: “If they are recognised as Lions and have a Lions number – which all those who played in (those two games) have – then they or their verified next of kin will receive a cap.”

Remembering the day France played the Lions

The Lions celebrate the series win in Oz, 1989 (Getty Images)

However how did a Lions team, some with victory Down Under still a short-term memory, end up in Paris?

“There was a dialogue that happened at the time because we were coming to the end of the tour in Australia,” recalls former Scotland and Lions wing/centre Scott Hastings. “We won the Test series and then we stayed on for an extra week.

“During that week of relaxation and celebration, there were all sorts of meetings going on, first and foremost because South Africa has a centenary series against a World XV gathering, and there were rumours France wanted to play the Lions. So there was a lot of debate about who would do what, who would go where, would we do it collectively?

“In those days, we didn’t have the opportunity to set up WhatsApp groups or emails! It was kind of like you made your own decision and you wondered who else would turn up. I suppose I could find the original letter…”

And so he does, with Hastings snuffling out the original invite sent to him via the Committee of Home Unions. Right there, he is informed of his selection and the potential arrangements to arrive at the Concord Hotel in Paris and prepare to face les Bleus.

What Hastings also has, though, is a letter from 1989 Lions skipper Finlay Calder. In it, the Scottish back-rower reveals his reason for not taking part in the Paris match.

After the success of the tour to Australia, upon being asked by France to play, the Lions group thought it would be good to have an event where players’ partners could be part of it all too. Yet, as the letter detailed, “The Home Unions Committee felt that our demands to include the whole party with partners was ‘excessive'”. For that reason, some seasoned players would not keep their tour going, but gave their blessing for others to go and play.

It was, as they say, a simpler time. The amateur days…

Remembering the day France played the Lions

A contested ball in Paris, 1989 (Getty Images)

For Hastings, he says, matches like this were brilliant for showing his game. His club side, Watsonians, had been relegated the season before and as Scotland headed into a crucial period before the 1990 Five Nations and the 1991 World Cup, he remained in the shop window.

For others, though, this match represented a golden chance just to wear the red. Players like Phillip Matthews of Ireland.

As the former flanker tells Rugby World: “I was gutted not to make the tour (to Australia). As a boy, from 12 or 13, my dream was to tour with and play for the Lions. I thought the chance was gone, so when I was called up I was delighted. I had no hesitation. Just to put that jersey on – when you get your first International jersey you give it a long hard look before you put it on; you savour what it means.

“I was just thrilled. Some of the guys (from the original Australia tour), particularly in the forwards, didn’t want to play and I can understand that. I think there was a dispute of some description. They had their jerseys. But Paul Ackford was one of a few who toured and he did play.”

Matthews feels that a one-off game pales in significance when compared to a full tour, though he does joke that he was “grateful for any morsel!” And with a sharp proclamation he remembers the pace of the encounter.

As Mitchell writes in his report, Rob Andrew scored a try within a minute. Ackford was “immense” while, Mitchell quips, “Andy Robinson must be a face that brings nightmares to French players’ and fans’ slumbers.” Hastings also fondly recalls the late David Egerton getting the chance to make his sole Lions appearance.

Berbizier remembers Andrew’s lickety-split opening try, telling Rugby World: “They scored quickly, at the start of the game, and afterwards we are always (chasing) – we have to play to try to win the game. Gavin Hastings had a big game too, he was unbelievable, scoring two tries.”

The 56-cap scrum-half also remembers the style of play. While some may marvel at the folkloric names on the blue side, Berbizier makes it clear that there was fresh blood being pumped into France, with some experimentation and regeneration going on. Reports of the game detail a Lions pack on top, which some attribute to the lack of Test experience in the home set of forwards.

serge blanco

Star French full-back Serge Blanco scored against the Lions (Getty Images)

It was an honour, Berbizier says, to face the famous side. But France had to keep slugging away. Of the tactics, Berbizier explains: “With a young team, we wanted to play at the base. They were strong at the base, particularly in the lineout and scrums. We needed to be consistent there, and also in defence. We knew the talents of the Lions backs.

“I think the difference was the experience of the Lions. Because it was a special game we wanted to play with French flair. It was a mistake.

“After, when we had to run after a score, it was too late to change the tactics. Our mistake was probably to not respect the basics. With a team like the Lions that was a mistake. We lost by two points and it’s a regret for us, because to win against the Lions… you can understand!”

Something else stood out for Matthews.

“Some may remember from the Eighties, the drift defence. You’d want to keep the opposition backs, when they had the ball, on the outside shoulder. They’d basically shuffle them across the pitch. In Ireland our backs would talk about this and our forwards would look at each other rather cynically. We’d think it was just an excuse not to f****** tackle.

“But in that game I saw the back-line working. The most important thing, if you’re going to do a drift defence effectively, is to have real pace right throughout your three-quarter line. It was the first time I saw it, as a back-rower, lifting my head up from a ruck or scrum and seeing your own line defend against the French.

“Remember that in those days they were in their pomp and they were irresistible – sometimes playing at the Parc des Princes you’d almost be clapping, they were so good.

Remembering the day France played the Lions

Defensive action, 1989 (Getty Images)

“It was the first time I saw that defence working. We had pace right across the back-line. There was Jerry Guscott and Brendan Mullin, Scott was on the wing at that stage and Gavin in the backfield. The first few times I saw them do it I thought, ‘Ah, now I understand!’

“Those guys were brilliant and it was a real key part of the game. They obviously had a fair amount of ball but we managed to score more points.”

Unsurprisingly, in that environment, some of it was a blur. Hastings says that it was a “bloody good game but a hard game” yet the result just kept the good times coming in that Lions era.

“They scored right in the final whistle and I remember screaming at the referee, ‘No try!'” Hastings adds. “Brian Anderson, who was the Scottish referee there, turned round to me and said, ‘It is a try and it’s full-time.’ So we knew we had won it. For me, it was a tremendous victory. France were a great rugby team in ’89 and I was up against an old foe in Philippe Sella and it was the first time I had won at the Parc des Princes.”

There was, as Hastings says, a real vibe about the Lions at the time. On the opposing side, France felt it too. Could any French players get a sense of that in 2021?

The Teams

France: S Blanco; B Lacombe, P Sella, M Andrieu, P Lagisquet; D Camberabero, P Berbizier (captain); M Pujolle (H Chabowski, 62), D Bouet, L Seigne, P Benetton, G Bourguignon, T Devergie, O Roumat, L Rodriguez.

Lions: G Hastings; S Hastings, B Mullin, J Guscott, R Underwood; R Andrew (captain), R Jones; M Griffiths, S Smith, J Probyn, P Ackford, D Cronin, P Matthews, A Robinson, D Egerton.

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