Rain drowns World Cup dreams
The French rugby team's recent triumphs catapulted the sport into a spotlight
IN a country more known for patronage of the arts and cuisine than sport, 1995 proved interesting with the performance of France's national rugby squad.
Following an historic victory in New Zealand in 1994, France became the first European team to beat the All Blacks on their own soil.
Much was expected of the squad in 1995, especially in the World Cup in South Africa.
The victory in New Zealand raised the odds that France could end the Australian and New Zealand domination of the world's greatest rugby event.
Using the Five Nations Championship as a warm-up to the World Cup, the French got off to a strong start.
They hammered the defending champions Wales (21-9) in the January cold at Parc des Princes.
But they could not build on that momentum. In the next two games, they fell to the eventual winners, England, and Scotland.
In their final match they beat Ireland and finished third in the Five Nations standings.
It did not matter, however, as South Africa would be different.
Vowing to remain loyal to his players who played so well in the New Zealand Test series, French coach Pierre Berbizier had to go with a veteran team in South Africa due to a lack of young talent.
Arriving in South Africa for training in mid-May, it was clear that the French team had a different approach to the tournament than other nations.
While most teams were ensconced in posh hotels, the French team set up camp in a game lodge, outside of Pretoria.
With a relaxed atmosphere surrounding the team (so relaxed that half the team had shaved their heads), the move paid off.
The French cruised through their first match against Tonga, 38-10.
The team might have been a bit too relaxed as Berbizier blasted his players in the press for 'lacking respect for the game, the public and the World Cup tournament itself'.
Facing another easy match against the Ivory Coast (which they eventually won, 54-18), the French had their real test in the upstart Scottish team.
In the Five Nations contest, they lost to Scotland in the closing minutes but, in Pretoria, the French turned the tables.
With Scotland's thunder-foot captain Gavin Hastings kicking 14 points during the match, the French found themselves down 13-3 at half time.
Despite losing number eight Philippe Benetton and scrum-half Guy Accoceberry with fractured arms, the French rallied on the strength of five penalty kicks from Thierry Lacroix.
Trailing 19-15 with less than a minute to play, winger Emile N'Tamack took the ball and then crashed through old nemesis Hastings to score the winning try.
The 22-19 victory meant that the French would avoid the All-Blacks in the quarter-finals.
In their game against the host South Africans, the biggest factor was the weather.
With the playing field drenched after 24 hours of downpour in Durban, the game was delayed 90 minutes to clear the pools that had formed.
After the Springboks' flanker Ruben Kruger scored the only try of the game in the 26th minute, the match turned into a battle of goal kickers with Lacroix matching South Africa's Joel Stransky kick for kick.
Trailing 19-15, the French battled for a desperate last-minute try to win the game.
Pushing up field, it appeared all the effort was going to pay off as flanker Abdel Benazzi went over the try line. But the referee disallowed it, indicating that the ball had been held up.
That killed any momentum the French had as South Africa won, 19-15. With this victory, the Boks advanced to the World Cup final in which they beat New Zealand.
With only a play-off for third place left against rival England, an inspired French team ran the ball as they would usually do.
In shutting down the English, lock forward Olivier Roumat and winger N'Tamack scored second-half tries to lead France to 19-9 victory. More importantly, the win ensured that France became one of three seeded teams for the 1999 World Cup in Wales.