x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

England and France play out grudge match in Six Nations

Tonight's Six Nations rugby showdown between England and France at Twickenham is also the latest chapter of an ongoing rivalry that goes back hundreds of years.

Dejected England players, in white, leave the field after losing 12-10 to France at the Stade de France last year.
Dejected England players, in white, leave the field after losing 12-10 to France at the Stade de France last year.

Legend has it that the V-sign, the two-fingered insult, was conceived at the battle of Agincourt in 1415 during the Hundred Years War between England and France.

As the story goes, the French boasted that they would cut off the index and middle fingers of the English archers after winning the battle.

When reality set in, and the English had scored a decisive success due to the dexterity of their longbow men, the joyous archers put their two bow fingers up in the air in taunting triumph.

Wind forward almost 600 years, skipping past the famous battles of Yorktown, Trafalgar and Waterloo, and this is the rich tapestry that acts as a setting to tonight's Six Nations rugby clash at Twickenham in London.

For sure, the theatre will be smaller, there will be far less bloodshed, but the sentiment that has dominated the minds of these neighbouring nations for centuries remains the same: win at all costs.

To spice up things ahead of the 94th encounter between the two teams, both sides are unbeaten in this year's tournament, France having accounted for Scotland and Ireland, and England having seen off Wales and Italy in the first two rounds.

After a week's hiatus, the build-up to the game gained urgency earlier this week when Marc Lievremont, the France coach, made clear how he feels about the English in a press conference at the national rugby base of Marcoussis.

"We don't like them," said Lievremont, who as a player only once faced Les Rosbifs (the roast beefs), coming on as a substitute in the 24-17 victory in Paris in 1998.

"We have a bit of trouble with the English," he added. "We respect them but you couldn't say we have the slightest thing in common with them."

Lievremont's comments stoked the competitive fires that seemed to have died down since Imanol Harinordoquy, who starts for France today at openside flanker, told reporters in 2003 that he "despised" the English.

Yet it was not enough for Lievremont to underline France's traditional rivals for the championship crown. The son of a French army officer went over to the attack, naming all the old alliances with Wales, Scotland and Ireland, built up over centuries of ties against England.

"We appreciate the Celts and their conviviality and among all these nations we have one huge thing in common. We all don't like the English," Lievremont said.

"We beat Ireland yet left Dublin with the encouragement of all the Irish who said, 'For pity's sake, beat the English.'

"With the Scots, it's the same thing. It is also what gives you strength against the English, more than just because of rugby."

It was a bigoted sideswipe at today's opponents, but one which has been echoed in the past by John O'Neill, who this week signed a two-year contract extension to be the chief executive of the Australian Rugby Union.

"It doesn't matter whether it's cricket, rugby union or rugby league," O'Neill said during the 2007 World Cup. "We all hate England."

The England camp, however, are not the slightest bit concerned about Lievremont's comments, as two weeks ago Warren Gatland, the Wales coach, tried a similar tactic.

Gatland singled out Dylan Hartley for special attention, claiming that he was fragile under pressure.

The New Zealander's polemic served only to unite the English side further. Hartley had perhaps his best performance in an England shirt, and the team laid down the foundations of a successful Six Nations campaign with a 26-17 victory in Cardiff.

"I think Marc Lievremont has been to the same pre-match psychologist as Warren Gatland," said Will Carling, the England captain who led his side to three Grand Slams in the 1990s. "His players must be chuffed.

"To be fair, though, he's got a point," adding that he concedes that the English are "arrogant".

Carling was captain at precisely the point when England's fortunes against the French changed radically.

Although England lead the series by 50 wins to 36, with seven draws, between 1975 and 1988 England managed to beat France just three times, as Les Bleus marched to six championship titles. In 1989, Carling, at just 22 years of age, had been appointed the youngest captain of the national side and in his fourth game in charge he led England to a gutsy 11-0 victory over the visiting French at Twickenham.

The win touched off a run of nine consecutive successes, but it was a sequence that helped to mentally destabilise the French in such a manner that there has rarely been anything as tense, vicious and visceral in sport as the 1992 encounter at the Parc des Princes in Paris.

England had humiliated France twice in 1991. The French had travelled to Twickenham with perhaps the most sublime and inventive backline ever put together and despite outscoring the old enemy by three tries to one, they lost 21-19 with a Grand Slam on the line.

Later that year, in an ill-tempered match in the quarter-final of the sport's second World Cup, the Frenchman Eric Champ knocked out Nigel Heslop in the second minute after the wing put in a late tackle on Champ's compatriot Serge Blanco.

David Bishop, the referee, summoned Blanco and Carling, who could not believe how agitated the legendary French full-back appeared.

"I'm looking at Blanco, and he's shaking," Carling said. "I looked at the French forwards and they were shaking also. I went to my team and said to them, 'Look guys, these boys are right on the edge.' I was about to say to them to not tip over when Wade Dooley (the England lock) said: 'Does that mean we can keep kicking them?'"

So the stage was set in 1992 for England to march into the French capital to claim the spoils.

At a scrum, and wound up so tightly by Brian Moore, the England hooker, Vincent Moscato, who subsequently became a bit-part actor playing thugs, butted the English prop Jeff Probyn.

As the referee was reprimanding Moscato, Probyn pulled faces at the stocky Frenchman, who could not contain his rage and went in again with his head. He was sent off

Gregoire Lescube, his fellow prop, followed him later for stamping on Martin Bayfield, the England lock. It was the first time that two players from the same team had been sent off in a Test match, and neither played for France again.

For the record, England won the fiery affair 31-13.

Despite France being the more successful in the competition since Italy made the Five Nations six in 2000, England have beaten them on five of the last seven occasions at Twickenham.

With England's decisive victory against Australia in November still fresh in the worldwide rugby consciousness, there is genuine belief that France could be in for another beating tonight, something which Lionel Nallet, the France lock, fears.

"It is vital we take on the English without an inferiority complex, while still retaining the lessons of these dispiriting losses," the Racing Metro forward said.

"I don't especially like them. There is a history between the two countries; it's like a cat and a dog. These days, it is a tradition and each of us from both sides plays it up a little."




France and England have been rivals on the rugby field for more than 100 years. Geoffrey Riddle looks at some of their memorable encounters

March 22, 1906, Five Nations, France 8 England 35

The first time that the two sides met in an international was at the Parc des Princes in Paris. England scored nine tries and humbled the fledgling French rugby team, who could not beat England for another 16 matches until 1927.

February 26, 1972, Five Nations, France 37 England 12

This match took place in the Stade Colombes, the stadium that hosted the 1924 Olympics. Ironically, England’s sweet chariot went up in flames as France racked up the highest score England ever conceded in the Five Nations tournament. England were down only 15-9 at half time, but then the French cut loose in the second half, scoring four tries.

March 2, 2002, Five Nations, France 20 England 15

Since 1999, England had won the Five and Six Nations tournament, but had never secured a Grand Slam. Clive Woodward, the England coach, had transformed his team into the world’s No 1 side, but Raphael Ibanez, the France captain, had warned that England would be in for a “great surprise”. France were momentous, racing to a 17-0 lead, orchestrated by Gerald Merceron, who finished the game with 15 points.

October 13, 2007, World Cup, France 9 England 14

England through collective belief had reached the semi-final of the World Cup against the old enemy in Paris. France led at half time 6-5, which Lionel Beauxis extended to 9-5. But Jonny Wilkinson hauled his team back, and where he had won the World Cup in 2003 with a drop-goal from his right foot, this time he secured a place in the final with his left.