Why the All Blacks and France 'carry the flag' as the ultimate Rugby World Cup rivals - Sky
The Springboks may be New Zealand rugby’s all-time arch foes, but the All Blacks-France rivalry is the greatest in Rugby World Cup history.
No team has played the All Blacks more than France at the quadrennial showpiece. The two sides have clashed seven times, from the first final at Eden Park in 1987 to the 2015 quarterfinal in Cardiff.
The All Blacks have bragging rights in the biggest games – winning two finals against France – but Les Bleus still dine out (à la carte, of course) on their victories in the 1999 semifinal at Twickenham and the 2007 quarterfinal at Cardiff.
The caterwauling from Cardiff after the All Blacks’ worst World Cup result - has subsided since the All Blacks’ 2011 Rugby World Cup final win over Thierry Dusautoir’s France and the 2015 quarterfinal trouncing in the Welsh capital.
Still, the scene is set for an epic encounter in the 2023 tournament opening game in Paris on Saturday (7.15am NZT).
New Zealand-born, Paris-based rugby journalist Ian Borthwick has been covering French rugby for over 35 years and has reported on numerous All Blacks tests too.
He wrote an award-winning 2006 book on 100 years of matches between France and the All Blacks has been “saying for a while that France and the All Blacks is the greatest rivalry of the World Cup to date”.
“It’s seen some of the greatest games of the World Cup as well, and some of the greatest lows and one of the greatest scandals. Even going back to ‘87, it’s been a fantastic rivalry between the two and the All Blacks have hit some high points, and also some low points.”
Borthwick also believes the rivalry is enhanced by the All Blacks and France “carrying the flag”, more than any other teams for “taking the frontiers of rugby forward’’.
France will be backed on Saturday by 80,000 partisans at Stade du France in St Denis, one of world rugby’s most imposing arenas. The atmosphere there was electric at kickoff – then funereal at fulltime – when France opened the 2007 World Cup with a shock defeat to Argentina.
Led by World Player of the Year Antoine Dupont, they have a much better team than 2007 and – perhaps for the first time in World Cup history – start as favourites against the All Blacks.
However, as much as the ‘99 and ‘07 capitulations still stick in Kiwi craws, the All Blacks do still boast overall bragging rights over France with five World Cup wins and two defeats.
Here we look back on past All Blacks-France World Cup encounters.
1987 Final: All Blacks 29 France 9 (Eden Park)
Forty-six thousand folk packed into Eden Park for the first World Cup with expectations at fever-pitch around Brian Lochore’s All Blacks.
There were a smattering of France fans too, and loose rooster sporting French colours got onto the pitch.
France boasted the incomparable Serge Blanco at fullback and Philippe Sella at centre. But, the French had, in effect, played their final a week before. Blanco and Sella both scored in a 30-24 win against Australia in an epic semifinal still rated one of the best World Cup games.
No-one, however, was likely to beat one of the All Blacks’ greatest-ever teams, with superstars such as Michael Jones, Sean Fitzpatrick and John Kirwan.
Jones scored the All Black’ first try and Grant Fox’s boot gave the home side a 9-0 halftime lead.
Then came David Kirk’s finest hour. The Rhodes Scholar halfback scored the clincher try, made a slashing 50m break to set up another score for Kirwan and, after the final whistle, lifted the Webb Ellis Trophy as stand-in skipper.
In a classy gesture, he then called up injured squad captain Andy Dalton to help him hoist the silverware.
All Blacks 29 (Michael Jones, David Kirk, John Kirwan tries; Grant Fox con, 4 pen, dg) France 9 (Pierre Berbizier try; Didier Camberabero con, pen). HT: 9-0.
1999 Semifinal: France 43 All Blacks 31 (Twickenham)
This pulsating contest still ranks as arguably the most memorable comeback in the World Cup’s 36-year history - and the All Blacks’ heaviest World Cup defeat.
The All Blacks led 17-10 at halftime, but warning signs were already evident. Led by Raphaël Ibañez (France’s 2023 team manager), France were the more enterprising side. Only French ill-discipline (11 first half penalties), Andrew Mehrtens’ boot, and a trademark blockbusting Jonah Lomu try kept the All Blacks in front at the break.
It looked all over when Lomu slashed through the French defence again for a 24-10 lead, but it was all France from thereon as Les Bleus rattled on 33 unanswered points.
The late, great Christophe Dominici had too much gas for the New Zealand defence. Centre Richard Dourthe scored from a clever kick by Christophe Lamaison (who reaped 28 points). Wing Philippe Bernat-Salles grabbed the clincher try after a Tana Umaga turnover. Lamaison kicked ahead, flanker Olivier Magne beat Jeff Wilson in the sprint upfield, then toed on for Bernat-Salles to ground the ball.
Veteran prop Craig Dowd later admitted the All Blacks “hit the panic button’’ during France’s comeback while Lamaison noted their rivals were “apprehensive, you could see it in their eyes’’.
France 43 (Christophe Lamaison, Christophe Dominici, Richard Dourthe, Philippe Bernat-Salles tries; Lamaison 4 con, 3 pen, 2 dg) All Blacks 31 (Jonah Lomu 2, Jeff Wilson tries; Andrew Mehrtens 2 con, 4 pen). HT: 10-17.
2003 Playoff for third: All Blacks 40 France 13 (Stadium Australia, Sydney)
The All Blacks’ title hopes had been dashed by the Wallabies (22-10) in the semifinal. George Gregan’s “four more years, boys” taunt was still ringing in their cauliflower ears as they prepared for the bronze medal match with John Mitchell desperate to continue his coaching journey.
The All Blacks took the game more seriously than the French, who made 13 changes. New Zealand-born centre Tony Marsh was perhaps the most motivated of the Frenchmen.
Carlos Spencer put on a clinic and Dan Carter gave a glimpse of his talent outside as the All Blacks racked up tries to outside backs Mils Muliaina, Doug Howlett and Joe Rokocoko and forwards Marty Holah, Chris Jack and Brad Thorn.
NZRU chiefs Chris Moller and Jock Hobbs announced the next day that the All Blacks coaching job would be advertised, and it was clear from their mien that Mitchell wouldn’t be the top contender.
All Blacks 40 (Marty Holah, Doug Howlett, Chris Jack, Mils Muliaina, Joe Rokocoko, Brad Thorn tries; Dan Carter 4 con; Leon MacDonald con) France 13 (Pepito Elhorga try; Dimitri Yachvili con, pen, dg). HT: 14-6.
2007 Quarterfinal: France 20 All Blacks 18 (Cardiff)
There are still some All Black fans living in one-eyed denial that it was only referee Wayne Barnes’ blue that cost Graham Henry’s team victory at the Millenium Stadium.
Sure, Barnes, a greenhorn then, missed Frédéric Michalak’s forward pass for Yannick Jauzion’s match-clinching try - but so did most of the 72,000 at world rugby’s best venue, and there was no video replay technology then.
The All Blacks were, equally, victims of their own hubris and a stubborn refusal to pot a field goal near the French posts. The memory of stand-in first five-eighth Luke McAlister intimating “All Blacks don’t do field goals’’ still beggars belief.
New Zealand rugby has always prided itself on a steely-gaze focus on the present, but the ‘07 All Blacks got ahead of themselves in Cardiff. With one eye on the semifinal, they rested some key players. First-choice lock Chris Jack was spelled for Keith Robinson, who hadn’t played due to injury, while star wing Doug Howlett, midfielder Aaron Mauger (a dropped goal pragmatist) and the seasoned Reuben Thorne watched from the stands.
Sebastian (The Beast) Chabal and his mates made it clear before kickoff that they were up for an epic, going nez-to-nez with the haka.
France were hosting the World Cup, and skipper Raphael Ibanez and co knew the tournament would be ranked a fizzer if they did not return to Paris for the semifinals.
The cockerel looked cooked for France when turnover machine Serge Betsen limped off with an early injury, but Thierry Dusautoir made 30 tackles and he and Imanol Harinordoquy bossed the breakdown.
The All Blacks did lead 13-3 at halftime, scoring one of their best World Cup tries through some McAlister magic, and a coruscating carry by Jerry Collins.
But after the interval. McAlister was sinbinned before Vincent Clerc put Dusautoir away for France’s first try.
Then Dan Carter came off with a calf injury. His capable replacement Nick Evans didn’t last long. Substitute halfback Brendon Leonard conjured a try for No 8 Rodney So'oialo, but Jauzion scored for France.
At one point starting halfback Byron Kelleher – one two All Blacks survivors from the Twickenham semifinal debacle, reportedly mused that “this feels like 1999 again’’.
The final whistle sounded. France celebrated while the valiant but vanquished McCaw buried his head in his hands at the post-match press conference.
Thousands of stunned New Zealand fans stalked Cardiff’s streets in disbelief. Some All Blacks were still sobbing at the team hotel next day as they headed for early flights home.
France 20 (Thierry Dusautoir, Yannick Jauzion tries; Lionel Beauix 2 con, pen; Jean-Baptiste Elissalde pen) All Blacks 18 (Luke McAlister, Rodney So’oilao tries; Dan Carter con, 2 pen). HT: 3-13.
2011 Pool A game: All Blacks 37 France 17 (Eden Park)
Revenge is a dish best served – twice. At home in 2011, the All Blacks got two opportunities to exorcise any lingering ghosts from their 1999 and 2007 exits.
The first came in captain Richie McCaw’s 100th test - the third pool game before 60,000 fans at Eden Park. He received a commemorative cap from former NZ Rugby Union chairman Jock Hobbs, a former All Blacks No 7 and captain himself.
Israel Dagg, in electric form at fullback, snaffled two tries for the dominant All Blacks, while Cory Jane, Sonny Bill Williams and No 8 Adam Thomson also got on the scoresheet.
France trailed 19-3 at halftime, but managed second-half scores to backs Maxime Mermoz and Francois Trinh-Duc.
All Blacks 37 (Israel Dagg 2, Cory Jane, Adam Thomson, Sonny Bill Williams tries; Dan Carter 3 con, pen, dg) France 17 (Maxime Mermoz, Francois Trinh-Duc tries; Dimitri Yachvili 2 con, pen). HT: 19-3.
2011 Final: All Blacks 8 France 7 (Eden Park)
Former Wales forward turned TV commentator Eddie Butler summed it up when he claimed the All Blacks were the best team at the 2011 World Cup, but “won at their worst’’.
The pressure of public expectation – an elusive first World Cup title for 24 years – almost got the better of Graham Henry’s team in a nervy final before their 61,000 faithful.
Some All Blacks were basically playing on one leg. Especially leader Richie McCaw, soldiering on with a broken foot.
After tournament-ending injuries to Dan Carter and Colin Slade, the All Blacks were onto their fourth-choice first five-eighth when Aaron Cruden limped off in the 33rd minute. On came Stephen Donald. Plucked from his whitebaiting possie just days before the semifinal, Beaver would become a national hero.
France made the final despite being in almost open revolt against coach Marc Lièvremont, including a late-night booze-up after their semifinal win over Wales.
The French assembled, in a defiant V for victory formation, before advancing upfield as the All Blacks performed their Kapa o Pango haka.
A gripping game ensued, watched by millions of Kiwis from behind splayed fingers, in their lounge rooms.
Tony Woodcock scored the All Blacks’ only try, off a Kieran Read ball from a lineout, for the sole first-half points.
Donald slotted a near-40m penalty goal in the second half before French captain Thierry Dusautoir – the best player on the field – grabbed a converted try.
No-one could bear to the watch. Coach Graham Henry looked in pain. Fans’ fingernails were chewed. Time ticked by in seemingly suspended animation. Finally, a nation let out a collective breath as referee Craig Joubert blew the fateful final whistle.
Relief was the overwhelming emotion.
All Blacks 8 (Tony Woodcock try; Stephen Donald pen) France 7 (Thierry Dusautoir try; Francois Trinh-Duc con). HT: 5-0.
2015 Quarterfinal: All Blacks 62 France 13 (Cardiff)
It proved a triumphant return for the All Blacks to the scene of their biggest World Cup embarrassment eight years earlier.
The All Blacks’ biggest score in their World Cup playoffs history was sweet revenge for team talismans Richie McCaw and Dan Carter, who were on field in 2007.
All Blacks coach Steve Hansen admitted the 2007 squad had “rocked up a little bit arrogant, like previous All Blacks teams over the years may have”.
There was no chance of any lost focus in 2015 with McCaw and Carter in charge.The crowd of 71,219 were treated to nine All Black tries, including a hat-trick by ‘The Bus’ Julian Savea and a double by replacement halfback Tawera Kerr-Barlow.
The All Blacks were up 29-13 at halftime and piled on 35 more points in the second half.
France barely fired a shot, apart a fist to McCaw’s face that earned No 8 Louis Picamoles a yellow card.
Hansen said afterwards that the 49-point win “allowed this group to say [to the All Blacks of 1999 and 2007, “there you go guys, we’ve fixed that one up”.
All Blacks 62 (Julian Savea 3, Tawera Kerr-Barlow 2, Jerome Kaino, Nehe Milner-Skudder, Kieran Read, Brodie Retallick tries; Dan Carter 7 con, pen) France 13 (Louis Picamoles try; Morgan Parra con, pen; Scott Spedding pen). HT: 29-13.
So what about the prospects for Saturday’s State du France rematch?
Ian Borthwick believes it will set the tone for what is “going to be the best World Cup ever”.
France, he says, are in “their best shape of the professional era’’ with coach Galthié creating a more united team culture, drawing on “some aspects that the All Blacks have done’’, including a connection with the grassroots.
Like many great All Blacks down the years, key current players including France captain Antoine Dupont and No 8 Grégory Alldritt are humble figures from rural backgrounds who “keep the team grounded”, Borthwick says.
In recent tests, to remind themselves of who they represent and player for, France players have had the names of their original clubs, emblazoned on the back of their jerseys, Borthwick says. “If you look at the [Timaru-born Auckland-raised tighthead prop] Uini Atonio, his jersey has Wesley College.”
Borthwick agrees that Galthie and manager Raphaël Ibañez (France’s hooker in their 1999 and 2007 wins) won’t be intimidated by the All Blacks challenge, because of their past success, but they also have “a very healthy respect and admiration for the All Blacks”.
Borthwick doesn’t believe the All Blacks’ recent record 35-7 defeat to the Springboks is a portent for their chances against France. He remembers the All Blacks beating France 54-7 in 1999 and 61-10 in 2007 just months before their World Cup defeats. The World Cup, is, he says, “a event in its own right, it’s a bit like the Olympics. It’s all very well being the record-holder, but it’s about winning on the day.
“France have proved on a couple of occasions [against the All Blacks], three if you count the 2011 final’’ that they can do that. “You can be the record-holder, but
France, he says, are in as good a shape as possible to win their first title.
“I think it’s time for France to win it, and a lot of people would be pleased if that would happen, not just in France, but around the world.
“The fact that they’ve been in three finals and never quite made, is perhaps a sign that it’s their time.”