by Brendan Cole
New Zealand dominate the head-to-head record between these two sides but so frequent are the shock defeats that no team should be more nervous about meeting France in the Rugby World Cup.
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Why? New Zealanders typically pick apart other rugby teams the way cats toy with balls of wool. They execute ruthlessly, fear failure, aim to win every week, and set targets like doubling the score from the first half in the second. At its best and worst, New Zealand rugby is like a machine - a logical process, a solution to a problem that is always solved with clear thinking followed by relentless, accurate effort.
The French don't think like that: some weeks they try, some weeks they don't, some tackles they miss, others they make, some scrums they push, some they don't, and so on. Can you think of a New Zealand rugby player who would even be capable of shrugging his shoulders like a Frenchman?
Ultimately, New Zealand cannot understand them, perhaps because the French do not understand themselves. That is anything is the secret weapon France have.
The all-time record over 50 matches includes 12 wins for Les Bleus – including two at Rugby World Cups in 1999 and 2007.
Here are five of the most important matches.
1906 – France face 'The Originals'
On New Year’s Day, France played their first ever Test match against the New Zealand ‘Originals’ team captained by the remarkable Dave Gallaher. Born in Ramelton, Co Donegal, Gallaher's family emigrated to New Zealand in 1873 when he was five years old.
He grew up to become one of the most important men in the early history of New Zealand rugby, leading the tourists to 34 wins in 35 games and playing a role in numerous early on-field innovations.
The 'Originals' were the first team to be called the All Blacks. Their sole defeat came against the Welsh and even that was controversial due to a disallowed try, and the Welsh tactics against the New Zealanders' 2-3-2 ‘wedge’ scrum, which allowed Gallaher - the 'wing-forward' or 'rover' - to feed the ball to the scrum. The 'official' scrum-half then collected it at the back.
The French match was a good-natured encounter. In an echo of their decision to let New Zealand wear black on Sunday, France allowed New Zealand choice of ends and kick-off.
Tries were worth three points and New Zealand scored six, and won the match relatively easily 38-8.
The eight points scored by France – which included tries by Noel Cessieux and Georges Jérôme – was more than any team in the British Isles managed to register and each score was greeted with delight by their supporters.
In the two weeks following the France game, Gallaher and star inside-back and vice-captain Billy Stead co-authored a book on rugby - 'The Complete Rugby Footballer' - which included the words: "We are strongly of the opinion that the game will spread in their country and that in the course of time they will put a team in the field which will command the utmost respect of any other."
1954 – First win for France
France lost to the New Zealand 'Invicibles' in January 1925, and World War II and expulsion from the ‘Four/Five Nations’ Championship in 1932 slowed the development of the game.
But after some stutters, the game eventually prospered as Gallaher and Stead predicted it would. The first victory over Wales came in 1948 and France won a share of the Five Nations for the first time in 1954.
That same year, in the third meeting between the two sides, they beat New Zealand 3-0 in Colomiers. The victory came at the end of a moderately successful tour for the All Blacks in which they also lost to Cardiff, Wales and South-West France, and drew with Ulster and Swansea.
France were captained by the powerful Lourdes flanker Jean Prat (pictured above) - dubbed "Mr Rugby" by the English press - and he scored the only try of the game, which was generally dominated by New Zealand. But France held out, with the All Blacks unable to take numerous drop-goal chances or breach the French defence on the ground.
1986 – Victory for the 'Baby Blacks'
The 1980s was a turbulent decade for New Zealand rugby, with difficult times off the field overshadowing some strong achievements on it.
The most controversial incident saw the New Zealand Cavaliers tour apartheid-era South Africa in 1986 – losing three out of four Tests amid rumours that secret payments were made to the 28 players who travelled.
The ‘Cavaliers’ players were banned for what many considered a paltry two months - but New Zealand still had fixtures to fulfil.
That meant an inexperienced ‘Baby Blacks’ team consisting largely of young players took on France in June at Lancaster Park.
Widely expected to lose, the 'Baby Blacks' secured an 18-9 win with Mike Brewer scoring the only try. Over the next few games, the New Zealand selectors merged the ‘Baby Blacks’ with the players and eventually, the wounds from the Cavaliers’ tour healed.
France gained their revenge later that year at the infamous ‘Battle of Nantes’ – beating a full-strength New Zealand team 16-3 in a match which infamously saw Buck Shelford have his scrotum ripped open by French rucking and sewn up in the dressing room after the game. Hooker Sean Fitzpatrick recalls having his head rucked on one of modern rugby’s most violent days.
After that, according to Fitzpatrick, the New Zealanders decided that they would never again allow that to happen. "It changed the face of the way we play the French".
1994 – 'The Try From The End of the world'
Though still regarded as the game’s premier power, New Zealand were not as dominant in the early 1990s as they are now. Australia were the reigning World Cup champions, and while New Zealand had beaten South Africa 2-0 in a Test series in the summer, they had drawn the third Test. They would also lose the Bledisloe Cup match against Australia in August.
Despite that, France were expected to be no more than worthy opponents over two Tests in June and July of 1994. But the French won the first Test, which saw Phillipe Sella win his 100th cap, relatively easily 22-8.
In the much-hyped second Test, New Zealand looked to have done enough to secure revenge as they led 20-16 in the second half.
But the match was turned on its head with three minutes left.
Phillipe Saint Andre collected a loose kick in his own 22 and turned to run it back. Seven sublime passes and 85 yards later, full-back Jean-Luc Sadourny crossed the line for an incredible winning score - the famous 'Try From The End of the World/L'Essai Du Bout Du Monde'.
Though the would lose the Rugby World Cup in South Africa a year later, the New Zealanders have not lost at Eden Park since.
1999 – RWC semi-final scoring splurge ends NZ hopes
The forward-pass inspired win at RWC 2007 is the French Rugby World Cup victory many remember but the semi-final defeat in 1999 is probably the one that gives New Zealanders more nightmares.
New Zealand were un-backable favourites to win the match and everything looked to be going their way until well into the second half.
Jonah Lomu had put them ahead with two tries. The first was a statement - Lomu breaking two French tackles before holding off another five men as he rampaged over the line. The second, early in the second half, saw him exchange three passes with full-back Jeff Wilson during a spectacular counter-attack from deep before crossing to keep New Zealand ticking along.
Early missed kicks by Andrew Mehrtens seemed like they would not matter as New Zealand led 24-10.
But Christophe Lamaison, usually a full-back and a late replacement for Thomas Castaignede in the number 10 jersey, had other ideas. He had scored the early try for France to keep them in the game.
Two drop goals in two minutes in the second half and two more penalties put them within touching distance of the lead at 24-22.
A famous try for Christophe Dominici followed – the winger collecting Fabien Galthie’s wickedly bouncing box kick before racing in for the killer score.
France did not let up. A Lamaison chip teed Richard Dourthe up for another try after the French forwards brought play within yards of the line. Another kick-chase try for Phillipe Bernat-Salles put France out of reach.
Wilson finally broke the spell with a New Zealand try in the final minute, but France ran out of time and France went to the final, where they lost limply to Australia, after scoring the biggest upset in rugby history.
Lamaison - a part-time out-half - ended up with a try, three conversions, two drop goals and three penalties for a total of 28 points. Wearing the number six jersey for France that day? Marc Lievremont.