Lynn McConnell

Southland-born Lynn McConnell is a sportswriter/historian with 40 years experience in journalism having been sports editor of The Evening Post and The Southland Times. Lynn has written several books including 'Behind the Silver Fern: Playing Rugby for New Zealand' together with Tony Johnson.

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Five fierce French rivals

Getty Images     04 Apr 2018     Getty Images

The ability of the French to catch New Zealand side's napping has been a feature of the relationship that started away back on New Year's Day 1906 at the end of the Originals tour. But it was 1954 before they managed their first win, a 3-0 win over Bob Stuart's touring side.


Probably the most enduring feature of French Tests against New Zealand has been the dynamic ability of their backs, able to turn nothing into a gliding, evasive style of running that caused all manner of trouble for New Zealand sides through the years.

But, inevitably, free-running by backs generally depends on the men up front doing their job, and that has involved some hard men who, on their day – and they had to have themselves well and truly wound up – were capable of causing their own form of mayhem.

The most famous example of that was the scrotum-tearing assault on All Blacks No.8 Wayne Shelford during the infamous Battle of Nantes in 1986. Whatever else may have happened in that game, and there was plenty, it proved the catalyst in the New Zealand players' minds to their winning World Cup campaign six months later.

More recently it was the alleged eye-gouging of inspirational All Blacks captain Richie McCaw during the last stages of the successful 2011 Rugby World Cup final.

Earlier fans will recall the assault on legend Colin Meads in 1967 when his head required stitching after Alain Plantefol scraped him severely and resulted in Meads playing a week later against Scotland with his head bandaged and making him even more conspicuous than usual in a game which saw him sent off.

Meads always talked about a little French back who caused him problems, Jean Gachassin, while the All Blacks sides of the 1970s had to deal with two front row powerhouses Gerard Cholley and Robert Paparemborde while a useful loose forward in the 1980s was Eric Champ. More recently Sebastian Chabal with his caveman look and metal-like frame, as lock Ali Williams found out when breaking his jaw in a collision, was another who commanded wariness.

But five players who had a special place in the history between the two counties, and who needed to be watched closely by the All Blacks were (in no particular order):

Phillipe Sella

A centre fit to rank with the greatest players in rugby, he played 10 times against the All Blacks and was the first player to register 100 Test caps, ending his career with 111 caps. Along the way he scored 30 Test tries and in the 1987 Five Nations series he became only the fourth player to score a try in each game of the series. But New Zealanders remember him not only for the quality of his running and distribution skills but also for a high quality of defence, something that was not always a feature of other skilful attacking players from France. His 12-year international career involved 10 Tests against the All Blacks, including the 1987 World Cup final loss 9-29. He ended his career at Saracens in England where he was involved in laying the foundations for that club's highly successful era.

Jean-Pierre Rives

The blond-headed flanker was possibly one of the finest leaders French rugby has produced. So well did he stand out on the field because of his hair colouring, he was known as the Casque d'or, (Golden Helmet). Leading France 34 times, he set a world captaincy record during which France won three Five Nations Championships, two of them in 1977 and 1981 being Grand Slams. He didn't play in 1977 against the All Blacks tourists but after disappointment in the first Test of 1979, and a midweek loss to Southland in which he played, Rives helped mastermind the Bastille Day revival at Eden Park four days later. Ahead 11-7 at halftime, France unleashed in the second half as Alain Caussade, Jerome Gallion and Didier Codorniou crossed for tries to complete a rousing 24-19 win. It was the first French win on New Zealand soil and amazed the tourists with the way the sporting Eden Park crowd applauded their play. Rives has won a famous career in art as a sculptor in his post-rugby life but he was an artist on the field that day.

Walter Spanghero 

A versatile tight-loose forward Walter Spanghero was rated by Colin Meads as one of the toughest players he met. He first appeared against the All Blacks in the famous Test of the 1967 tour when the Paris Test was rated one of the hardest games those involved in ever played. Most often at No.8, he occasionally switched to lock and was always more than a handful in the tight-loose exchanges. He toured New Zealand a year later with the second French team to New Zealand. They lost all three Tests but their play in the third Test at Eden Park was especially memorable as they took on the All Blacks with their running game. But if there was disappointment from those games there was personal satisfaction in 1973 when he led the side to France's second victory over the All Blacks at home, beating Ian Kirkpatrick's side 13-6.

Pierre Villepreux 

Some would claim that Serge Blanco was the greatest French fullback to play in New Zealand, and he was good, but a more complete player, certainly a better defensive player, was Pierre Villepreux. In the six seasons between 1967 and 1972 he appeared 34 times for the side, including four Tests against the All Blacks. His penalty goal at Athletic Park in the second Test of 1968 is still regarded as one of the longest goals landed anywhere. He had the assistance of the northerly breeze but showing the round-the-corner style to New Zealanders for the first time he quietened those who had laughed when he stepped up. He contributed to a fine running display in the third Test, but the skilled coach and tactician moved through the ranks and in 1999 was assistant coach to Jean-Claude Skrela in the stunning 31-43 defeat of the All Blacks in their World Cup semi-final.

Thierry Dusautoir 

No French player of the modern era enjoyed more respect among New Zealand fans than loose forward Thierry Dusautoir. It seemed that every time he was on the field against the All Blacks he had the ability to inspire his side above the ordinary. It helped that he scored a key try in France's World Cup quarter-final 20-18 in New Zealand's worst World Cup campaign. But it also helped that he was captain when France achieved a 27-22 win over the All Blacks at Dunedin in 2009. Then there was the way he led the French to a marvellous final effort at Eden Park in the 2011 World Cup final. Beaten earlier in the tournament by the All Blacks and Tonga, the French were hardly ranked but Dusatoir's second half try got the French within a point and created a final 30 minutes of anxiety that was entirely representative of the hold France can have over New Zealand teams. Ironically, Dusautoir's reign ended when the All Blacks had the final say, 62-13 in Cardiff in 2015.