Time has not erased New Zealand pain

Time has done little to erode the shock and nothing to erase the pain felt in New Zealand after France came back from the brink to win the 1999 World Cup semifinal.

A match New Zealand had seemingly won was lost in the most astonishing reverse in the 20-year history of the World Cup.

Eight years on, with a quarterfinal against France on the horizon in Cardiff on Saturday night, the scars are still vivid.

After defeat at Twickenham, a loss to Australia in the 2003 semifinals in Sydney followed and New Zealand have still not won the World Cup since they were co-hosts in the first tournament 20 years ago.

In 1999 New Zealand, with the incomparable Jonah Lomu on the wing, were expected to brush aside a fragile French side at Twickenham.

Once before half-time and again after the interval, Lomu charged at the French defence. Both times France fullback Xavier Garbajosa discovered urgent business elsewhere on the field.

The result was Lomu’s final two World Cup tries to put New Zealand 24-10 ahead with a final in Cardiff against Australia imminent. A nation relaxed.

What happened next still defies belief. The crucial figure was Christophe Lamaison, a transplanted midfield back who for a day was transformed into one of the world’s great flyhalves.

Against the odds

Lamaison scored with two drop-kicks. He also scored a try, kicked three penalties, converted all four French tries and snuffed out the Lomu threat by forcing him to turn and chase the ball. In 13 minutes France scored 26 points and finished 43-31 winners.

France celebrated without restraint — those privileged to witness the greatest World Cup match marvelled and the All Blacks, out-thought and outplayed, stood in disbelief.

In New Zealand the reaction was swift, savage and sometimes nasty. Coach John Hart, a fine coach and a decent man, was vilified in radio talkback shows and angry race goers even spat on a horse he owned as it left the track.

Five years earlier Lomu, then a raw 18-year-old, had been similarly exposed by a French side who exploited his defensive naivety.

France won that 1994 series in New Zealand through their tactical acuity. The second of the two Tests will be remembered always for the ”try from the end of the earth”, a sweeping 90m effort culminating in a touchdown to Jean-Luc Sadourny.

Of all their opponents, including their great traditional rivals South Africa, New Zealand have most reason to fear the French, who have specialised in winning against the odds.

In 1954, Jean Prat led France to a 3-0 win in Paris. On Bastille Day in 1979, Jean-Pierre Rives captained France to 24-19 win at Eden Park.

Touring teams in 1961 and 1968 often looked hopeless against the provinces before giving the All Blacks a mighty scare in the tests.

Essentially, it is the French gift for the unexpected, the combination of beauty and brutality and the inexplicable fashion in which a team of apparent misfits can suddenly play like rugby gods which fascinates and worries New Zealanders.

”The French can be the finest of rugby players and teams,” wrote the late Terry McLean, the doyen of New Zealand rugby writers.

”They can also be the worst, or near to it. Because, fundamentally, for them, there are more important things than playing rugby.” — Reuters

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