With the November Internationals upon us, we’ll be rolling out a series of retrospectives looking back at famous Rugby World Cup matches to correspond with the weekend’s action. First up is Serge Blanco, France and Australia in 1987.
Few teams are as predictably unpredictable as France. So adept are they at upsetting the apple-cart, their status as an unknown quantity at Rugby World Cups has become an eye-rolling cliché - before they go and do it again, that is.
In 1987, at the first Rugby World Cup, they lost out 29-19 in the final to a superb New Zealand team featuring John Kirwan, Buck Shelford, Sean Fitzpatrick, Michael Jones, Grant Fox and skipper David Kirk.
But before their disappointment at Eden Park they took time to write one of the tournament’s most thrilling chapters with a 30-24 semi final victory over Australia at Concord Oval in Sydney.
The Wallabies were among the tournament favourites, while France were cast as a supporting player despite wrapping up a Five Nations Grand Slam in the months before the Rugby World Cup kicked off. Australia, who played all of their games on home soil, emerged from Pool 1 as winners before defeating Ireland in the quarter finals.
In a competition beset by one-sided matches France posted big wins over Romania and Zimbabwe on their way to the last eight, although they were held 20-20 by Scotland - who would fall to the All Blacks in the next round.
As the semi final rolled into view it became clear that the potential was there for a classic. A quick look through the team sheets confirmed suspicions. France called on the magisterial Serge Blanco at full back, Philippe Sella in midfield, Pierre Berbizier at scrum half and the multi-talented Didier Camberabero on the wing. In the pack, Eric Champ bristled in the back row while tighthead Jean-Pierre Garuet took aim at the set piece.
The Wallabies had stars of their own. David Campese lined up opposite Blanco, skipper Andrew Slack took charge in the centre and Michael Lynagh and Nick Farr-Jones combined at half back as they would four years later in the Rugby World Cup 1991 Final.
Golden Moments: RWC 1987
From the get-go, this match was different. The shackles that accompany a lot of knockout games were nowhere to be seen and both teams played with style and ambition. Australia wore their favourites tag like a comfortable sweater and jumped out to a 9-0 lead thanks to three Lynagh penalties, but France had other ideas and fought for every inch of turf.
French second row Alain Lorieux took the game by the scruff of the neck in ripping the ball away from Troy Coker and crashing over in the corner, accompanied by a sizable portion of the Australian pack. Lynagh and the Wallabies were rocked, but stayed on their feet.
As the game rattled towards its conclusion, Campese and replacement flanker David Codey breached the France defence, with Sella and wing Patrice Lagisquet responding in kind with tries of their own. As the 80-minute mark approached, attention turned to Lynagh’s battle of the boot with Camberabero.
Decided at the death
With the scores tied at 21-21 with three minutes remaining, Lynagh landed his third penalty – to accompany a brace of conversions and a drop goal – for the lead, and surely victory.
But France were behind for barely the time it took for Australia to draw breath. Camberabero slotted his second penalty to draw the game once again, before Blanco stepped up for his moment in the spotlight.
Fittingly, the winning try epitomised the spirit in which the game had been played. Lynagh and Campese used the ball one time too many, turning over possession and allowing France a shot at forcing a result before the onset of extra-time. From deep in their own territory they made their way upfield, combining traditional French flair with a sense of urgency matching the situation.
Finally, as Australia desperately scrambled back in defence, Berbizier swung a pass inside, where Lagisquet collected and darted through a half gap. His offload provided a tantalising glimpse of escape for Lynagh but the fly half was unable to gather, with Laurent Rodriguez on hand to snaffle the ball for France. One pass out gave Blanco the sliver of space he needed to dive over in the corner, through the despairing tackle of Lawton.
The French full back, so nonchalant at times, hammered the floor in delight as the Wallabies trooped back. Camberabero added the extras to seal victory in what remains one of the best Rugby World Cup matches of all-time. Lynagh left the field and entered a silent Australian dressing room.
“It was one of my biggest lows in rugby,” he recalled. “The dressing room after that was fairly desolate. I was pretty down and out, as was everybody else. I remember just thinking: ‘Somebody drop a boot, or turn the showers on or something. Just make a noise’. There was no noise and wasn’t for a long time after the game. It was very disappointing because we’d let the game get away.
“Interestingly, when I was at Saracens, Philippe Sella was a teammate there. He played against me on that semi-final day. I remember sitting with him and saying: ‘Actually, apart from the result, it was one of the best games I played in.’ Over time, you sort of get used to it a little bit. You start to see that it was a fantastic Test match, even though we lost.
“It was a great game, we all played well, we all made mistakes. The lead changed hands time and time again, in the end we weren’t good enough. Winning it four years later, that eased the pain a little bit.”