CASTRES, FRANCE – France’s November internationals were the definition of a tale of three matches… with only one sorry conclusion.
The statistics – two defeats and one victory – don’t tell the whole story. Though they may point to a theory that is rapidly gathering momentum: namely that French rugby isn’t as strong as pundits and fans would like to claim it is, despite the huge amount of money swilling round in the Top 14 pot.
There was the inspiring and noble false dawn defeat against the all-conquering All Blacks, who went on to beat both England and Ireland to remain unbeaten all year and close in on Lithuania’s winning streak of 18 consecutive international rugby matches.
There was the widely expected victory over Tonga at Le Havre, which combined immovable defence and unstoppable attack in 80 minutes of clinically professional rugby.
And then… There was the return of the frustratingly mercurial French, as they lost to South Africa on home soil for the first time since the 52-10 embarrassment in 1997. As his players returned to their respective clubs, Saturday’s defeat left France coach Philippe Saint-Andre looking glumly back over a miserable year of just three wins in 11 matches.
The final score was 19-10, but it could have been much, much worse. The Springboks crossed the line through JP Pietersen in the first 90 seconds to silence the capacity crowd at Stade de France.
Morne Steyn, who will have stayed in Paris after the game to rejoin his club teammates at Stade Francais, landed three penalties and a conversion before Patrick Lambie added a late penalty of his own when he took over kicking duties.
South Africa were 13-0 up by the time Toulouse winger Yuann Huget finally got France on the scoreboard, touching down on the cusp of half-time to give the home crowd hope.
It wouldn’t last. Morgan Parra converted, but he had already missed a penalty, slipping as he shaped to kick as the Stade de France pitch once again proved unfit for rugby purposes. And Huget needed to be at his best in defence early in the second half to beat Francois Louw to the ball with a second Springbok try beckoning.
Both sides were reduced to 14 men in the second half. Replancement French prop Thomas Domingo was sent to the sin bin for a tip tackle on Toulon flyer Bryan Habana, while Louw – almost a South African hero just minutes earlier was carded for putting his hand in the face of Stade Francais second-row Pascal Pape in a ruck.
The two sides exchanged penalties – and at 16-10 with seven minutes left, France still had some hope, but Lambie made no mistake after the home side were pinged for offside.
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