Twickenham on a Sunday afternoon in late October. A fine day for Rugby, and one of the finest games the sport has seen, or so the argument goes. But, it is an argument with substance.
Backed up by a dramatic narrative that was not just unexpected, but unprecedented. If a lack of unity in French camps is sometimes considered a lazy cliché, then in this case, the cliché was based on considerable evidence.
Underwhelming Pool C victories over Namibia, and Canada in particular, meant their final group game against Fiji in Lansdowne Road, would see only one side guaranteed a quarter-final berth. The losers, a play-off spot against England beckoned. And no one wanted that. All though it could be argued, Jean-Claude Skrela’s side were doing their best to laden down their own path through the tournament with self-made impediments.
Fiji were 19-13 up on the French and looked to be just about holding off the onslaught. Eight re-set scrums and desperation and pressure fused to the point where New Zealand referee Paddy O’Brien eventually awarded a penalty try.
France marched onto a quarter-final against a Gonzalo Quesada inspired Argentinian side who had dumped Warren Gatland’s Irish team out of the competition in the quarter-final play-off stage.
Amidst a game played at a relentless pace, it was a performance with some French swagger at times. Phillippe Bernat-Salles, putting paid to the adage that 29 is the general rule of thumb for peak performance age in the sport. Well it was 20 years ago, in the sports infancy of professionalism.
But still, these passages of parading, marauding rugby, weren’t enough to give any credence to the idea that they could overcome a Jonah Lomu inspired New Zealand side, who was playing with a physicality most countries were struggling to deal with.
But the brakes, temporarily at least, were put on that idea in the opening salvo’s at Twickenham. Christophe Lamaison and Andrew Mehrtens, the respective number Number 10s, settled their sides down with their endeavours from the kicking tee. But after the balancing of feet, came the signs of the special tidings to come.
When you watch footage of Christophe Dominici, slaloming through the New Zealand backline, it is difficult to imagine the fate that awaited. A year later, to the exact day, Dominici would be placed into an induced coma to cope with stress and anxiety. Citing burn-out in the aftermath of the World Cup in part, it was also rooted in a litany of personal tragedies, including the death of his sister several years before.
But that afternoon he was playing with panache, pace and an ability to run lines that could only be understood when seen. His run was held up just short of the line, but he created the space and opportunity for Lamaison to score under the posts. If no-one believed France had a chance, the hope that the players had was showing green shoots of belief.
Lomu, though, wasn’t having too much of it. He collected a low pass and burst through a smattering of blue shirts who bounced off him with the effectiveness of worn bristles on a rock, and the apparent disdain with how he discarded the ball after touching down, all built into the storyline that New Zealand would ultimately dominate.
The French continued to prod at the All Blacks line, Dominici and then Olivier Magne probing but their differing approaches to a kicking game were being met with the same fate. A dead-end.
A half-time lead of seven points for the All Blacks, in some eyes abetted by Jim Fleming, the referee, was further extended after the break when a lapse in judgement saw Lamaison gift the ball to full-back Jeff Wilson. Once he released Lomu there were more panic stations, Fabien Galthie showing the most valour to fell the onrushing colossus, but not enough to prevent the try. Mehrtens converted, and that, apparently, was that.
If a dramatic arc consists of the elements of exposition, climax, and dénouement, then the shaping of it in this instance, was all down to a climax that was as unexpected as it was, you would imagine, unplanned.
Dominici was proving an unparalleled anti-hero. Blonde streaks, gliding runs from the diminutive winger, a complete opposite to the super-hero quality of Lomu and the apparent indestructibility of a pack including the likes of Zinzan Brooke and Reuben Thorne.
But back then, France were France. The impossible was always possible, if not probable. What followed was perhaps the best half an hour in World Cup history.
The full footage of the game is worth a couple of hours of your time. It is said there are two types of nostalgia. Autobiographical and historical. If you were around for this game the first time, it is probably a bit of both. But experience it either way. It’s worth every minute.
Watch it unfold, drink it in and then store it. You might not see the like of it in Japan. But then again…