Part 2 of a 3-part series on the rivalry between two of the top contenders to win the Rugby World Cup in France later in 2023. The teams play the opening match of the RWC in Paris and could very well end up playing one another in the final several weeks later.
It was not until February 1954 that France won its first test against New Zealand – in Paris in front of a crowd of 25,000 –winning 3-0 in overcast and windy conditions. Although the French had to wait 48 years for their first win over the All Blacks, this was only the third time the teams had played one another (the All Blacks beat France 30-6 in Toulouse in 1925, with 30,000 spectators there watching on).
Despite the French starting to claim they could be considered as the world champions – they later beat South Africa in a two-test series in 1958 and winning the Grand Slam in 1959-60 and 1961 – New Zealand was unbeaten against France during the 1960s. Although the French lost all eight tests against the All Blacks in the 1960s, they were able to beat the All Blacks three times in the 1970s, with a win in 1973 (13-6) sharing a series in France in 1977 (3-15 and 18-13) and winning 24-19 in 1979.
The 1979 win was France’s first ever win against the All Blacks in New Zealand, on Bastille Day, July 14, at Eden Park. Fifteen years later France won its first series in New Zealand (1994), winning the two tests played – 22-8 in Christchurch and 23-20 in Auckland.
One of the most eventful French - NZ matches was the 1986 test played in Christchurch
New Zealand vs France at Lancaster Park, Christchurch, New Zealand
Saturday, 28 June 1986
New Zealand 18 France 9 (HT 12-6)
Rugby in New Zealand in the 1980s was dominated by the powerful and divisive effects of apartheid in South Africa. The 1981 Springbok tour of NZ shone a light on apartheid and sport that had never been shone as bright before. It changed New Zealand society. It divided families and broke-up friendships. It changed rugby. A few years later, a 1986 rebel tour of South Africa by The Cavaliers – an unofficial NZ team comprised of most of the then current All Blacks – led to a subsequent two test ban for those Cavalier players.
As a result, it was a ‘Baby Blacks’ team that ran out onto Lancaster Park to play a strong French team in a test match that had been committed to before the Cavalier’s tour. Only four of the Baby Blacks had played test rugby before – David Kirk (who went on to be the 1987 World Cup winning captain), rugby legend John Kirwan, Arthur Stone and Brian McGrattan. Future All Blacks captain Sean Fitzpatrick made his Test debut.
Players have shared their experiences that day in the awesome 2020 book by Tony Johnson and Lynn McConnell ‘Behind the Silver Fern – The All Blacks in their own words.’
David Kirk – ‘The Baby Blacks were a significant moment in All Blacks history, and a lot of New Zealanders think that … there was a buzz, an excitement … I recall some scepticism from all the old heads that there was no way 'these young guys' could win. They were a great French team, and they would crush us in the set pieces was the feeling at large.’
John Kirwan – ‘We had a simple game plan about putting them on their arses, making them go backwards and hurting them … it was a moment in time where the boys had chosen to go to Africa and the boys who stayed behind said, 'You're not going to get your All Blacks jersey back'. A lot of us went into the game with that sort of attitude.’
Sean Fitzpatrick – ‘Just before we’d gone onto the field, Kirky got us into a circle for one last motivational talk ... the door was open and out of the corner of my eye I saw the French walking past. I found myself looking at Laurent Rodriguez and he was like … Grrrrrrrrr. I thought, Effing hell, what are we doing here? But, somehow, we beat them. I still don’t know how.’
At the end of that year New Zealand made a two-match tour of France and were comprehensively beaten 16-3 in the second test at Nantes. The All Blacks were outmuscled by a French team playing with full intensity. The match has come to symbolise the necessity for the All Blacks to never be complacent and for the forwards to never be dominated.
Dave Gallaher Trophy
Since 2000, France and New Zealand have played each other for the Dave Gallaher Trophy. Dave Gallaher died at Passchendaele (Belgium) on the Western Front in October 1917 during World War I – in one of the worst battles in NZ’s military history. He had fought in the Boer War years earlier, but by WW1 at 42 years of age he was exempt from conscription to fight in WW1. With the deaths of two brothers in the war, however, he falsified his age and joined the army. He is buried at Nine Elms military cemetery in Poperinge, a 20-minute drive from Passchendaele. There is a silver fern on his headstone. A visit to his grave has been a feature of All Black tours to France. Passchendaele is just over the border from Lille in France, where some Group matches will be played in the 2023 Rugby World Cup.
The team holding the Dave Gallaher Trophy must defend it in challenge matches; if the other team beats them, they become the new holder of the trophy. If the match is drawn the holder retains the trophy. Rugby World Cup games between the teams don’t qualify as challenge matches. France currently holds the Dave Gallaher Trophy with its 40-25 win in Paris last year.
100 Years of Rivalry
The All Blacks celebrated 100 years of rivalry in 2006 with two wins against the French in France; 47-3 in Lyon on Armistice Day, and 23-11 in Paris. But the All Blacks would trade the successes of the 2006 centenary any day in exchange for the result in the following year when France shocked and stunned the All Blacks, and New Zealanders more generally, defeating them 20-18 in the 2007 Rugby World Cup quarter-final (the All Blacks were ahead 13-3 at half-time). Many reasons were cited for the team’s worst ever result in the Rugby World Cup, including the strength and resilience of the French defence, poor refereeing, French skills and flair, poor preparation, selection mistakes, and tactical questions as to why the All Blacks did not take drop-goal attempts in the latter part of the game.
Then, two years later, France won the Gallaher Trophy for the first time.
What the All Blacks didn’t know in 2009, was that if a series was tied, it would come down to the aggregate score rather than the current holders retaining the trophy. The aggregate score favoured France 37–36 (winning the first test in Dunedin 27–22 and losing the second test in Wellington 10–14). What emerged afterwards was that the All Blacks coaching staff didn’t tell the players about this technicality.
An article in Stuff in 2009 noted the different viewpoints:
Halfback Piri Weepu – ‘I think it is [bollocks] … To come out here tonight and for the boys to guts it out and come away with the win, then to find out afterwards that you lost the trophy is pretty stupid … We thought we'd done the hard yards . . . and then to find out we were two points away from retaining it.
All Blacks Coach Graham Henry – ‘We didn't pass that information on. We thought it was important they [the players] concentrate on the test match and didn't need that extra information that could put extra pressure on a side that's relatively young.’
All Blacks Assistant Coach Steve Hansen – ‘I think we got told on Thursday… we just knew we needed to win a test match … We thought that [winning by six points] would be a bonus. The state of the side at the moment and where it is, we felt as coaches rightly or wrongly that is what we needed to do: get out there and make sure we play well and win the test.’
French Coach Marc Lievremont – ‘The All Blacks said they had lost the battle, but they were going to win the war. I think having won the trophy, we won the war.’
The All Blacks went on to take back the trophy in France later in the year and would keep it until that resounding 40–25 loss last year in Paris.
The French have been the bogey team for the All Blacks over the past few decades. This is especially the case with World Cup rugby. But they are more than just a bogey team for NZ now. Over the past year the French have taken their rugby to the next level. This is no fluke occurrence; rather, it reflects the strategic and logical coming together of different attributes typical of rugby world champions.
Part 3 of this story continues the look at the rivalry between the two teams with a focus on the world cups, and then dusts off and rubs the crystal ball to see what will happen in the Rugby World Cup next year.