- Saturday marks the 100th edition of Le Crunch
- Re-live some historic matches and individual stories
England against France has become one of the great rivalries in World Rugby. Brendan Gallagher of The Rugby Paper recalls some of the great battles, individuals and stories as the two sides go head to head for the 100th time.
One way or another, England and France have been going at it hammer and tongs for nearly a thousand years now. Hastings, Agincourt, Crécy, Yorktown, Trafalgar, Waterloo and all points west.
It’s one of the great historic rivalries but outside the corridors of power the only arena it is given annual expression these days is at rugby’s great citadels. Twickenham, Parc des Princes, Stade de France and the occasional neutral venue like Eden Park and the Olympic Stadium in Sydney are the modern-day battlegrounds.
The French don’t play cricket and meetings on the football pitch are rarer than hen’s teeth but, at least once a year, sometimes more in a World Cup year, England tackle Les Bleus and there is always a satisfying edge and bite to proceedings. These are matches that always count and, as with all such rivalries, there is much mutual respect and admiration even if it is often muttered sotto voce or through clenched teeth.
On Saturday, we celebrate the 100th meeting between England and France, a glorious soap opera of a fixture that has served up some of rugby’s greatest moments, iconic images galore and a fund of stories, some of which are even repeatable.
For the statistically minded it’s currently 54-38 to England with seven matches drawn, but as it took the fledgling France XV 17 Tests to get off the mark with a win, it’s been very much even-stevens for the last 80 years or so. It took us nearly as long to fully understand the French but the great Jean-Pierre Rives eventually put us right on that one: “In France we treat all wars like games but we treat games like war.”
“In France we treat all wars like games but we treat games like war.”
It all started on 22 March 1906 at Parc des Princes when England ran out 35-8 winners. The following January at the Richmond Athletic Ground England beat France 41-13 with burly Harlequins wing Douglas ‘Danny’ Lambert scoring five tries after which he was promptly dropped for reasons unknown.
Lambert was in and out of the England team but three of his seven Tests were against the French. The following year at Stade Colombes he scored a try in England’s 19-0 win, while in 1911, during the teams’ first Twickenham encounter he contributed two tries, five conversions and two penalties – worth 22 points then and 29 now. Alas, Lambert met his end four years later in France, killed in action at the Battle of Loos.
France’s first win came in 1927 at Stade Colombes when Grenoble wing Edmond Vellat’s try was the solitary score in a less than auspicious send-off for England ‘great’ Wavell Wakefield who broke two ribs and bit through his tongue on his final England appearance. Five Nations games against France were dropped for much of the 1930s after allegations of professionalism and perceived overly dirty play in French club rugby but resumed after the War and the French were soon into their stride with a first-ever win at Twickenham in 1951.
Increasingly formidable, especially in Paris, it was honours even for most of the 1950s and 1960s, indeed 1959-61 saw three consecutive drawn matches in the Five Nations but, after winning their first ever Grand Slam in 1968, France hit the 1970s running and started to really flex their muscles.
England may have claimed splendid Test wins in New Zealand and South Africa during the 1970s but they suffered horrendously at the hands of a mean machine pack in Paris as Fran Cotton recalls: “That French pack was the biggest, best and scariest set of hombres I have encountered on a rugby pitch.There was Gérard Cholley on the loosehead, he was absolutely massive. He was the French Services boxing champion and was like a huge nightclub bouncer going to work.
“Alain Paco, the hooker, was as hard as nails and Robert Paparemborde was the best and hardest tighthead the game has ever known. Impervious to pain. And that’s before you get to the two choir boys in the second row, Michel Palmié and Jean-François Imbernon. Oh and did I mention Jean-Pierre Rives, Jean-Claude Skrela and Jean-Pierre Bastiat in the back row?”
Over the years there has been plenty of panache as well, notably at Twickenham in 1991 when England may have won the Grand Slam but the game is remembered mainly for Philippe Saint-André’s try which was recently voted the greatest in Twickenham history. Saint-André himself has distinctly mixed feelings: “It is nice the try gets so much attention and praise – and we scored two other exceptional tries that day – but England won the game and the Grand Slam that is what I remember most. The disappointment.”
Jason Leonard, the current RFU President, puts the try in its proper context however: “I just wanted to stand back and applaud like everybody else. I was a young bloke then and later in my career that’s exactly what I would have done, Grand Slam decider or not. It was magnificent.”
England during that ‘Carling era’ tended to get the upper hand over a formidable French team and later in 1991 it was Mick ‘the Munch’ Skinner who was the hero during a hectic World Cup quarter-final at the Parc des Princes. With the score 10-10 and France beginning to get on top, France No.8 Marc Cécillon picked and charged like a rhino on the hoof at a scrum five, only to be hit by the immovable force that was Skinner and carried back the five yards from whence he came. It was the game’s pivotal moment and England rallied to win 19-10.
The World Cup has featured prominently in this story. England can also point to memorable semi-final wins in 2003 and 2007 but France got the upper hand at RWC2011 in the quarter-final and also won the 3rd-4th play-off game at RWC1995.
And, of course, the language issue can sometimes rear its head although not always in the way you might suspect as Leonard again recalls: “One time in Paris Dewi Morris was pointing into a ruck, in which the French were killing the ball, and screaming at the referee: “Monsieur, monsieur, le ballon, le ballon!” The referee was Stephen Hilditch. “Dewi, it’s all right, I can understand you. I speak English,” said Stephen who is from Belfast!”
Tickets for the match are still available from www.ticketmaster.co.uk or via the ticket office at Twickenham.