The greatest World Cup match ever?
On 31 October 1999, 70,000 people filed into Twickenham expecting to see champions-elect New Zealand walk past France into the World Cup final. What followed was certainly a classic for rugby fans but was it the greatest World Cup match ever?
Maybe France’s 43-31 victory was the best of all time. Perhaps even, dare I suggest it, for All Blacks supporters. It was a unique occasion, a stunning contest featuring every possible element you could wish for in a sporting showdown.
There was a hot favourite, an unpredictable underdog, some phenomenally good tries and a barely believable see-sawing of the scoreboard. It was rare drama.
France centre Richard Dourthe (arms aloft) celebrates with Emile Ntamack as current coach Marc Lievremont looks on. Picture: Getty
Before the match, the All Blacks were 1-20 after destroying Tonga 45-9, England 30-16 and Italy 101-3 - before seeing off Scotland 30-18 in the quarter-final.
By contrast, France had been beaten 54-7 in Wellington four months previously and picked up the Five Nations wooden spoon. In the World Cup, they struggled past Canada, saw off a below-par Namibia and scraped through against Fiji 28-19 in a controversial pool match in Toulouse.
The Fijians had been denied what appeared to be a legitimate try by referee Paddy O’Brien and, despite leading 19-13 with 10 minutes to play, were undone by the New Zealand official when he awarded a penalty try to France late on.
Les Bleus had shown only a fleeting glimpse of their capabilities - in beating Argentina in the quarter-final 47-26.
France winger Emile Ntamack recalled: “We were laughing before the game. It was very simple, we had nothing to lose. The difference between the two teams was incredible. For us there was a great pride at just being in the semi-final. Nobody expected us to get there.”
He remembered: “My theme for the team had been, ‘Expect the unexpected’. I had a great respect for the French capacity to do special things. Invariably a degree of complacency can wear in and it was probably in the players’ minds. As soon as you have any complacency at this level you open the door - that’s what happened.”
New Zealand were edgy at the start, making uncharacteristic errors. France lost Xavier Garbajosa to a yellow card early on but still struck first with a Christophe Lamaison try.
It was the start of a remarkable day for the fly-half, where he didn’t miss a kick. But Andrew Mehrtens’s boot and a bruising Jonah Lomu try sent the All Blacks into the changing rooms 17-10 ahead.
According to Ntamack, France were unfazed at the break. He said: “The first half was tough for us but the scoreline wasn’t too bad. We told each other, ‘We’re in the game - stay strong in defence, stay focused’.”
Across the hallway, John Hart was telling his team to shut the game down.
He said: “The message I gave them was to play for territory, dominate the set-piece and not let them into the game. Sadly we didn’t follow that message because we scored too easily after half-time through Jonah [Lomu]. Immediately people thought, ‘We’re home’. Tactically we played into the opposition’s hands.”
Lomu’s second try was his 15th in World Cups and put New Zealand 24-10 ahead. It seemed the All Blacks were heading for the final - but France had other ideas. Lamaison banged over two quick drop-goals and two penalties. Suddenly there was only a two-point difference with 25 minutes to go.
Ntamack remembered: “I don’t think we changed the way we were playing. I think the All Blacks changed. They were surprised to see us fighting, surprised at our spirit.”
France blitzed New Zealand with a three-try burst through Christophe Dominici, Richard Dourthe and Phillippe Bernat-Salles. All came from kicks piercing the defence. It was a breathtaking spell of 33 unanswered points.
Hart said: “That rugby ball can do some strange things and it decided to do them that afternoon at Twickenham. We were beaten by an unbelievable 20 minutes of rugby from the French. Every bounce went their way and they got a very strong rub of the green from the referee [Scotland’s Jim Fleming] - although I’ve never said it publicly until now.
“People in New Zealand say what a disaster it was but, when you look at the tries and the nature of the game, it was the most outstanding game of rugby football.”
Ntamack felt invincible. He said: “We didn’t want the game to stop. This was our day. New Zealand didn’t know what had happened. We had it all, we had everything. We felt we could keep going and score more tries. We played with big hearts, with honour and with guts.”
Tana Umaga, Jonah Lomu and Andrew Mehrtens were among a star-studded All Blacks team stunned by the French at Twickenham. Picture: Getty
The game ended with the All Blacks scoring a consolation try at the end through Jeff Wilson but New Zealand were broken men leaving the field after the 43-31 defeat.
John Hart remembered: “There were a lot of tears. I had to confront the media because my captain [Taine Randell) was in no state to do so. He was devastated. It was soul-destroying.’’
The French celebrations were unconfined, although the fairytale ended as they were beaten by Australia 35-12 in the Millennium Stadium final.
Little did Hart know that, eight years later, the French would inflict another heartbreaking World Cup defeat on the All Blacks – beating them 20-18 in a World Cup quarter-final in Cardiff.
France seem to relish knocking over the sport’s kingpins and have another chance this weekend in Auckland.
Perhaps the last word should go to Ntamack. He added: "We know deep down we can play brilliant rugby. Every time we play New Zealand it’s a special game. They are a reference point for every team in the world. But it’s not just about beating them - it’s about proving to them that we are good players too."
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