Jacob Whitehead has selected a ‘fab five’ of Tests between England and France before their key Pool C encounter
Le Crunch. England and France’s Rugby World Cup match in Yokohama this weekend needs little hype. The chance to top the pool at one of the most open tournaments in rugby history. One of the most storied rivalries in world rugby. A chance for France to make up for the embarrassment of a 44-8 defeat in this year’s Six Nations. An opportunity for England to avenge their loss at the hands of Les Bleus in their 2011 World Cup quarter-final.
England and France have gone toe-to-toe with each other since 1906, with England winning 58 matches to France’s 40 as well as seven draws. Some have been classics, some have been colourless, most have been chaotic.
With that in mind, here’s our rundown of the five best games between the sides to get you in the mood for the 106th edition of Le Crunch…
England 21 France 19, Twickenham 1991
Geoff Cooke’s side met France in a Grand Slam decider at Twickenham in 1991, desperate to win ahead of an assault on the Webb Ellis Cup.
They would eventually prevail 21-19, but this was a game in which England’s Five Nations triumph was almost entirely forgotten. People generally remember only one thing from it. That try from Philippe Saint-Andre – aka the greatest ever scored (other options are available).
England were two scores ahead and cruising. France needed something to happen, and when Pierre Berbizier caught the ball in the dead-ball area, he passed to legendary centre Serge Blanco. A man with more than his fair share of genius, Blanco set out from under his own posts, hope surely more prevalent in his head than expectation. He drew in Jeremy Guscott and a few slick passes set fly-half Didier Camberabero away down the right wing.
Most mortals who attempted to chip the ball and catch it at full pace would look about as graceful as a camel attempting to roller-skate. Not so Camberabero, whose kick-and-gather was more reminiscent of a scene from Swan Lake than something usually seen in the carnage of Le Crunch.
One more kick into space would see Saint-Andre fly onto the ball like an Exocet missile, downing the ball under the English posts. Twenty seconds, four passes, two kicks, one of the greatest tries of all time.
France 10 England 19, Parc des Princes 1991
Six months later and the two sides would meet once more in the quarter-finals of the World Cup, a match played in the bear-pit of the Parc des Princes. It was the epitome of a bruising encounter – when several English players came off the pitch shirtless, their torsos were the colour of France’s blue jerseys.
Just as the meeting in the Five Nations that year has survived in our collective memory as that try, the World Cup encounter has become known for that tackle, a recollection to make the most stony-hearted of English forwards misty-eyed.
Mickey Skinner is known as one of the great rugby characters off the field, but demonstrated his on-field prowess in a seismic collision as England defended their line at 10-10.
French No 8 Marc Cecillon picked the ball up at the base of the scrum and seeing only English backs ahead of him, began to stride towards the try-line. It seems strange to say that a man of Skinner’s size could pass unseen, but hide he did, before suddenly popping into Cecillon’s path due to some questionable binding.
Tucking himself low, he picked up the French giant, and repelled him five metres. If a tackle was ever a hydraulic press, this was it. The French siege on the English line was defended, and when Will Carling stole the ball in a maul after a towering Richard Hill box-kick to score the winning try, England were into the semi-final.
England 17 France 18, Twickenham 2005
One of the remarkable things about French rugby is the way they’ve almost created a position: le petit general, a scrum-half who controls the game like a fly-half. Fabien Galthie, Philippe Carbonneau, Jean-Baptiste Elissalde, Morgan Parra. But perhaps the greatest performance in that mould came from Dimitri Yachvili in 2005.
Yachvili’s grandfather was in the French resistance, a role which his grandson adopted single-handedly in dragging France back from a 17-6 half-time deficit. England were at a low ebb, two years into their post-World Cup hangover and firmly in the dark days of the Andy Robinson era.
Yet tries from a fit and firing Olly Barkley and man for all seasons Josh Lewsey put England within touching distance of a much-needed win. And then Yachvili took over. His first penalty, from out wide in the fifth minute, was a warning sign, and he nibbled away England’s lead to see his side eight points behind with half an hour to play.
Therein followed a masterclass in control and courage. Yachvili led his side around the field with a variety of kicks and flicks, strangling England’s chances in that second period. His unerring accuracy with the boot seemed to get to England’s kickers, with Barkley missing three efforts.
With 11 minutes left, Yachvili put his side ahead with his sixth penalty. Charlie Hodgson had one final chance for England but put his drop-goal attempt wide under pressure. The man in the vicinity? Yachvili.
France 9 England 14, Parc des Princes 2007
A game remembered for a mistake, a loss to the old enemy, the death of a dream. France have lost three World Cup finals but, in a way, this semi-final defeat was the cruellest of them all.
It was a home World Cup; they’d battled through the group stages despite losing to Argentina in their first game and then sensationally defeated the All Blacks. Sebastien Chabal was rampaging, Yannick Jauzion was galloping, Bernard Laporte was playing more mind games than a chess grandmaster and, for a brief while, it seemed that destiny was on the French side.
In contrast, England had been thrashed by South Africa in the group stages and scraped to a famous win over Australia in a performance more than the sum of their parts. But surely this would be a step too far.
However, in the second minute, Josh Lewsey scored a try – or so the scoreboard would simply say. In reality, this was a classic French mishap, borne from the baffling selection decision of placing centre Damien Traille at full-back, and a laissez-faire attitude towards risk management. A kick from Andy Gomarsall was tracked by Traille, who dallied enough with the bouncing ball for Lewsey to pick it up and crash over.
Lionel Beauxis kicked France back into the lead at 9-8 and then, with 13 minutes left, his side had the chance to seal their place in the final. Jauzion’s cross-field kick was palmed into play by Julien Bonnaire to the onrushing Vincent Clerc, who had the line at his mercy. Then came The Tackle 2.0.
Joe Worsley, diving at full-stretch, his extension the only thing between France and the World Cup final, got a fingernail on Clerc’s heels. He tripped, and with his balance went France’s World Cup hopes.
Jonny Wilkinson did Jonny Wilkinson things as he scored a penalty and a drop-goal to seal England’s place in their second consecutive final. The host nation mourned, Chabal cried on the pitch, the English celebrated. French revenge would come four years later.
England 55 France 35, Twickenham 2015
Some games are simply nuts. This one had in-goal mishaps, a fly-half’s soul being separated from his body, props running in length-of-the-field scores and 12 (12!) tries.
The Six Nations title was on the line in this match. Ireland, Wales and England had all lost one game, and the side with superior points difference would take the title. When the chips had fallen, England, playing last, had a simple proposition – beat France by 26 points to win the championship.
England’s first try after two minutes was reminiscent of the great French sides of the Eighties, with Ben Youngs finishing a flowing move orchestrated by George Ford. Their bid for the title was on course.
Until, suddenly, it wasn’t. Sebastien Tillous-Borde scooped a loose ball up on halfway and outstripped the English cover defence, which was comprised only of, er, Dan Cole. Noa Nakaitaci was put away beautifully by his team to score.
A Courtney Lawes hit on rookie 10 Jules Plisson saw the Frenchman cut in two (The Tackle 3.0?), a hit which revitalised England, who scored through Anthony Watson and Youngs again to lead 27-15 at half-time.
In the second half, Maxime Mermoz crashed over under the posts for France, but England replied with two tries in quick succession – first Ford was the grateful recipient of the ball from a Youngs break and then Jack Nowell continued to enjoy his debut Six Nations campaign.
And then came my favourite moment of the match. Antoine Dupont, Cobus Reinach, Chris Ashton – all brilliant modern exponents of the support line. Let me add one more name to that list – French prop Vincent Debaty.
Nakaitaci’s break was swift and swerving, but he did not outrun the then 33-year-old French loosehead. Debaty burst into the camera shot like a Hollywood villain, flopping over the line with the relish of the man who knows, whatever happens, he will never again finish a length-of-field French try at Twickenham. Vincent Debaty we salute you.
Further tries from Billy Vunipola and Nowell were matched by Benjamin Kayser, and when the dust settled England had won the match by 20 points but lost the championship on points difference by six.
France had repelled the final English assault on the line, and although they’d lost the game, did they have the last laugh?
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