February 15, 1992, the day the XV of France hit rock bottom against England

The French team poses for the official photo on February 15, 1992, a few hours before the start of the Five Nations Tournament match against England at the Parc des Princes. (JEAN-LUC PETIT / GAMMA-RAPHO)

Perfide Albion against wild Gauls

It was my first selection, but instead of talking to me about rugby, journalists only talked to me about Waterloo and the Hundred Years War. “ And yet, he drooled over it to put on this blue jersey, Dries Van Heerden. This native South African waited many months to obtain his passport and be able to wear the jersey struck with the rooster. At 30, the third line knows that his best years are behind him. And hopes to take advantage of each minute of its first cape: “I expected so much from this match …”

No matter which side of the Channel we are on, this match is a revenge for the quarterfinal of the 1991 World Cup. Already at the Parc des Princes. Already Brian Moore and others. Already a defeat for the Habs, beaten 19-10. On the French side, we will quibble for a long time on the contract placed on the head of Serge Blanco by the English. English side, we remember a match of rare violence, and God knows that the “Roast beef” is not tender, especially on the front line. The Times speak of “hooligans in the field”, the Jeremy Guscott center evokes “animals” on the opposing side, and Brian Moore promises a “boxing match”, in his column published a few days before the 1992 match, in an English tabloid. “He was a first class manipulator, he did not have a business lawyer background by accident”, scolds journalist Pierre Salviac, the voice of rugby for three decades on France Télévisions.

English hooker Brian Moore training in January 1993 in Lanzarote, Canary Islands.
English hooker Brian Moore training in January 1993 in Lanzarote, Canary Islands. (MIKE HEWITT / GETTY IMAGES EUROPE)

According to legend, sorry, according to Brian Moore, in his book Beware of the Dog, Philippe Sella would have posted this chronicle in the three-color wardrobe, just to warm up his partners, who did not need it. No one in the French camp remembers this anecdote. “You know, Brian, who is a friend, doesn't need anyone to advertise, even if it means adding a little bit”, smiles Jeff Probyn, his friend on the first English line. “We must not take everything literally.”

Nevertheless, the French – who eat spit-roasted infants for breakfast, reading the tabloids – are eagerly awaited by the Anglo-Saxon press. Polite smiles respond to Philippe Sella, the captain, who promises “a much more disciplined team than at the World Cup. We learned the lesson”. Who remembers – apart from him – that the new coach, Pierre Berbizier, broke up with a press conference across the Channel to ease tensions? “I had assured that the discipline problems in the France team were of the past. You imagine that after what happened, I looked fine.” The Guardian will sum up the match in these terms: “The 1991 match was the general fight when the bar closed. The 1992 match was his pursuit in the parking lot.”

Parc des Princes during a match of the Five Nations Tournament in the winter of 1992.
The Parc des Princes during a match of the Five Nations Tournament in the winter of 1992. (JEAN-YVES RUSZNIEWSKI / CORBIS SPORT)

“Welcome to Paris”

Thedrunk 4, verse 12 of the gospel according to Brian Moore: “The first scrum of the match sets the tone. When the first two lines touch, Philippe Gimbert gives me a fork. Although this is the most cynical fault of the game, I kept my nerves, and I don't “I didn't answer with a punch. I just took his hand away from mine. The referee saw nothing, but guessed from my screams that something had happened.” Ah yes ? “Whatever !”exclaims Philippe Gimbert, who however did not pass for a tender. “Brian Moore, his career is based only on aggression, verbal or physical.”

Listening to Dries Van Heerden, it was, once again, the English who shot first: “From the toss (the draw to determine the side of the field where each team will play and the one that will kick off), Brian Moore threw something at Philippe Sella, who didn't really understand. “ The French would have been quick to respond, according to scrum half David Pears, who tells the magazine Rugby paper (in English) : “We had only been playing for a minute that Jean-François Tordo broke my nose. Welcome to Paris !”

The French have built their strategy on melee and discipline. “You know, at the time, we talked less about collective technique than engagement and combat, and we spent much less time in training”sighs Alain Penaud, the opening half of the team. The tricolor pillar Grégoire Lascubé even had the sleeves of his jersey cut, so that the opponent could not hang on to it in melee. It may be a little 8 ° C under the gray and low sky which overhangs the Parc des princes, the French are there to sweat and suffer. Even the French centers have the mission to contain the opposing pair Guscott-Carling, who had made them dizzy six months earlier.

“The line between maximum engagement and bullshit is subtle at the very highest level”, abounds in center Franck Mesnel, who hardly saw the ball during the 80 minutes of the match. “The English caricatured us … And it worked.”

France XV center Franck Mesnel during the 1992 Five Nations Tournament against Ireland at Lansdowne Road.
The center of the XV of France Franck Mesnel during the match of the Tournament of the five nations 1992 against Ireland, in Lansdowne Road. (GILBERT IUNDT / CORBIS HISTORICAL)

Until the 38th minute, everything is fine for the French team, which leads 4-3, thanks to a test of juvenile winger Sébastien Viars on the field. Admittedly, there was an alert when Philippe Sella and the English opener Rob Andrew collided. But only the Englishman had to leave the field. “I was hit hard on the head, but it was completely unintentional”, says Andrew, the only player from Toulouse, yet defending French champion, on the field. “Suddenly, I followed the end of the match on the bench, which allowed me not to be too badly received in club the next day. When things turned bad, I was no longer on the field. “ At the time, the famous concussion protocol did not exist. To the Antenne 2 fieldman, the physiotherapist at the time just slipped that the captain of the France team did not look on his plate.

38th minute therefore, the second line Jean-François Tordo saved the country by preventing Peter Winterbottom from flattening a meter from the line. Delayed game: the referee grants a penalty try to XV de la Rose, when the three-color scrum collapses twice in front of his in-goal. Strict. And in the next minute, the back Jonathan Webb doubles the bet. “What alarmed me at the time was that Webb had deposed Sella when he was not particularly known for being a space eater”, emphasizes Alain Penaud, sheepish. Rory Underwood, his Majesty's wingman, fondly remembers the moment when the famous song Swing Low, Sweet Chariot, the “We are at home” of the English, come down from the stands.

That's when we felt the game change. The French public has become apathetic. They understood that we had taken over.

Rory Underwood, at franceinfo

Half-time: a 15-4 who stings for XV de la Rose.

The English back Jonathan Webb sows the French center Philippe Sella to register a test, on February 15, 1992 at the Parc des Princes. & Nbsp;
The English back Jonathan Webb sows the French center Philippe Sella to register a test, on February 15, 1992 at the Parc des Princes. (JEAN-PIERRE MULLER / AFP)

Blues, bumps, and reds

En this time that the under 30s cannot know, the test is worth 4 points and the players do not return to the locker room at half time. They gather in a circle on the lawn for a short five-minute breath. It is at this moment that the Machiavellian English strategy weaves its web in the tricolor heads: “Our plan was to resist as long as possible, prevent them from deploying their game, to generate frustration at homeremembers Rory Underwood. And ultimately, they lose their nerves. “ Nothing was left to chance by the staff of Geoff Cooke, the English coach: “We knew that the referee – the Irishman Mr. Hilditch – was a trendy old school teacher with a passion for discipline. We took this into account in the way we play”, continues Jeff Probyn.

Another handicap for the tricolor rugby of the time, the language barrier. According to commentators of the time, who have the sound of the microphone hanging on the green shirt of the Irish referee, he is gibbering two words of French. But his phrasing and his Irish accent to be cut with a knife remain impenetrable to those who grew up with the language of Molière. “I myself did not understand everything he said, smiles Dries Van Heerden, however bilingual. This is also where the match was played. Whenever the referee spoke to an Englishman, the latter tapped the referee on the shoulder to indicate that he had understood. “

The French, who didn't get a grasp of what he was saying, stared at him like you look at an idiot.

Dries Van Heerden, at franceinfo

If Philippe Sella has fried whiting eyes, it is because of his meeting with the skull of Rob Andrew half an hour earlier. The tricolor staff shortens their ordeal and replaces it at the 55th minute. A big blow to morale for his teammates: “We were Philippe's orphans, it was the best center in the world at the time”, notes Philippe Gimbert. “How many of us were in front of the Carling team, which culminated in 50-60 caps, having played in the quarter-finals of the World Cup?”, wonders Philippe Saint-André. Six, not one more, when the English align eleven victorious holders of the match of October 1991.

In the locker room, Philippe Sella goes from surprise to surprise, or rather from nightmare to nightmare: “I hear noise, but a horrible noise. I see a player arriving, and I say, 'What's the score? The match is over?' And he said, 'No, I got fired.' It was Grégoire Lascubé, and a few moments later, rebelote, I see Vincent Moscato coming in. “The match is over, what's the score?” He said to me: 'No, the match is not over, I got fired.' And there I say: 'But it's not possible, what's going on?' And then it goes on, noise, always, I see Jean-Luc Sadourny arriving in the locker room. I say to him: 'Is the match over?' He replied, 'No, I got into it with Alain Penaud, I'm injured'. “

Let's rewind the thread of events. When Sella leaves, Sadourny enters. The Columérin is a rear training and a replacement wingman. It is however at this station that he settles down. French melee to follow. The suit is ready. But Alain Penaud wants to cancel everything: “I tell him 'We forget this combination, we didn't work it together'. He replies 'But yes, no problem, let's go!'” And bang, the collision.

“I still have gum pain just talking about it again”, smiles Jean-Luc Sadourny. “I don't remember very well anymore, but I think I hadn't touched the ball yet.” No more projectors of the green rectangle, direction the pale neon lights of the operating room of the Parc des Princes. “I got my tail stitched on the spot, seven stitches in the gum line, says Sadourny. It lasted a little while. I still have a few balls after Alain on this one. “ Response of the brivist shepherd to the columeraine shepherdess: “I was waiting for him at a crossroads, he comes up to me, I am willing to take a small share of responsibility for his gum, but no more!”

While the French see thirty-six candles, the English exceed the 20 point mark. The dazzling Rory Underwood took advantage of the confusion to flatten between the posts. “Not the most difficult test of my career”, comments the interested party, who saw a boulevard open before him in the tricolor defense. The score now stands at 24-7. The public in the Parc des Princes goes from apathy to frank hostility.

We arrive at the red card of Grégoire Lascubé. The hooker from Agen was caught by the patrol for having trampled on an opponent. At the time, the difference was subtle between the stomping (trampling) and the rucking (tailgating), one being sanctioned and not the other. “He made Fred Astaire on my head”, comments Martin Bayfield, the giant (2.08 m) of the third English line, who will later overtake Hagrid in Harry potter.

It is not quite the version of the person concerned, who expressed himself the next day in the program Stade 2: “I'm on my heels, there is an English player on the ground who prevents the ball from coming out. I touch it a little, perhaps. The expulsion is still quite serious. . ” A feeling of injustice shared by his teammates. “We were victims of the same acts, some of us still wore the marks when we left the fieldremembers Dries Van Heerden. Franck Mesnel nuance.

They, when they step on us, they do it according to the rules of the art.

Franck Mesnel, at franceinfo

Eleven points behind (Alain Penaud scored a try to hang up by countering a clearance), one player less … So inevitably, when Olivier Roumat enters the field, he hardly lulls himself into illusions: “When you get home, you know the game is lost. All I hoped for was to limit the breakage, take as few points as possible. And the game ends quickly, especially.” Unfortunately, the sinking of the French team is not quite finished.

Lascubated outside, coach Pierre Berbizier proceeds to a tactical reorganization, passing Jeff Tordo in the heel and Vincent Moscato left pillar. Tordo's blood has been out of him since the start of the match. “He could not bear that the English throw themselves into the regroupings at knee level, he had already trampled on an opponent, and I had warned him: 'Jeff, don't do that anymore, the referee will expel you'”, describes Van Heerden. On the next scrum, Tordo and Moscato glue their heads during the melee introduction, which prevents their opponent, Jeff Probyn, from positioning themselves correctly. The referee interrupts the two packs. “The referee said we had to stay calm. You talk!”sighs Philippe Saint-André.

Third line Dries Van Heerden in the Five Nations Tournament against Scotland game at Murrayfield on March 7, 1992.
Third row Dries Van Heerden in the Five Nations Tournament against Scotland game at Murrayfield on March 7, 1992. (CHRIS COLE / GETTY IMAGES EUROPE)

Dries Van Heerden, the Jiminy Cricket of the France team, the little voice of reason, which we don't always listen to:

“Moscato is warned by the referee: 'Next time, I will kick you out'. I translate, and he replies, laughing: 'You speak! This' Roast beef' cannot kick me out, it never happened that 'there are two red cards in an international match!' “

Dries Van Heerden, at franceinfo

The Béglais pillar then tries to strike a blow on Probyn, the spleen. The referee, who has lost nothing of his gesture, indicates to him the changing rooms, where he joins Philippe Sella and the others.

“A real injustice, protests Philippe Gimbert. If he hadn't played at Bègles, the club that frightened all of Europe, if he hadn't shaved his head, he would still be on the field. ” This is not entirely proof of this demonstration, but the haired Probyn finishes the match. “I knew what was going to happen. I gave him a brown on his first attempt. The referee warned me, 'If you do it again, I'll kick you out.'”

The arbitrator who lets pass one mandal, but not two? The custom at the time, recognizes Rob Andrew, our opener confined to the bench of substitutes at the end of the first period: “If we were in the wrong place at the wrong time, it happened regularly that we got one. The referee asked 'Are you finished?' and the game would resume. “ However, neither Brian Moore's spitting nor a Jason Leonard attack at the last minute was sanctioned by Mr. Hilditch. French rugby pays its reputation, not entirely undeserved. “At the time, the president of the Federation, Albert Ferrasse, refused to broadcast the championship games on television before the finals”, remembers Pierre Salviac. Officially, because the best players, all amateurs, were not always present. Also, because the show was not always good to see.

The joy of the English players after their victory at Twickenham during the match of the 1991 Five Nations Tournament, on March 16.
The joy of the English players after their victory at Twickenham during the match of the 1991 Five Nations Tournament, on March 16. (GETTY IMAGES / HULTON ARCHIVE)

Lady Di, white costume and funny face soup

Theat the end of the match is unreadable. The Habs try to limit the breakage and the English know that the match is won. “They even stopped plugging us in”, says Olivier Roumat. “They felt sorry for us.” A last gag test conceded later, and the French return to the locker room, head down, with excess baggage of 31 points (final score 31-13). Finally, they try. A swarm of police and officials in raincoats surround the referee, lest the French players or a member of staff come to give his four truths to the man in green, as in 1991. “I remember this referee very well, mocks Franck Mesnel, still resentful almost thirty years later. Add him a big black dress, and he would make a perfect villain in Game Of Thrones. “

Alain Penaud drops two sentences to a journalist at the edge of the field, and the whole French team locks up in the locker room. The unfortunate Dries Van Heerden, our neophyte, made the mistake of asking when the two teams were going to exchange the jerseys. “I was made to understand that this was not the time.” Michel Palmié, former international cut like a mirror cabinet, one of the scariest players in history, according to the British press, stand guard so that it settles “a family matter”, according to his terms.

For the coach of the France team, who still wore crampons, the baptism of fire is tough. “I still review his pre-match speech on the fact that it was important to keep his lucidity, even at high intensity”, remembers Philippe Saint-André. Clearly, it is missed. “He had a very professional approach to rugby”, continues the one who will occupy the position of coach from 2011 to 2015. The whole team cannot say the same. No Berbizier blower, just twenty players watching their pumps, in the steam room. Not too much the kind of coach, shouting. “Sometimes Berbizier could be just subtle, cynical, thanking us after a defeat”, slips Alain Penaud.

Rather than scolding, the coach cogitates. “Very quickly, I understood that this match was the end point of a certain era, and part of the team”, says Pierre Berbizier. Vincent Moscato will never be remembered in blue again. “He never understood that I could no longer take it back, vis-à-vis the English, to restore credibility to the XV of France.” A decision that still makes a stir. “Moscat 'deserved twenty more selections, at least”, plague his friend Jean-Baptiste Lafond. Even Jeff Probyn, the target of the missed whim, talks about it like a “charming boy, very correct”. “We met again, twenty years later, in the bathroom, during a ceremony organized by Olympic Midi. He slipped me 'Jeff, are we OK?' I replied without hesitation 'Yes, we are Vincent'. “

Suspended for several months, after this match, the Béglais pillar will swap the oval ball for boxing gloves. “Before, only the specialist press knew Moscato, after this match, the whole of France only talks about him”, notes Pierre Salviac. At a boxing meeting in Amiens a few months later, he will have the honors of the mayor, Gilles de Robien, as his opponent enters through the service door. It is however the last time that the French rugby players will be talked about with their fists. “From the end of 1992, we became the least internationally sanctioned team”, underlines Olivier Roumat.

There remains one last formality to accomplish: the post-match banquet. “It was the one and only time that it was organized at Concorde Lafayette”, says Jean-Baptiste Lafond. The rugby player is the superstitious type, and it will not be the only “first time” of the evening. “With Vincent Moscato, we had rented white tuxedos for the occasion. It was written 'black tie' on the invitation, that means tuxedo, but they did not specify the color. Except that when you take 30 points at home , it's not easy to assume. In the history of the Tournament, we are the only two to have dared. “ Without a doubt not the good evening.

We, in black suits, we already did not look good to drink cannons, but then them! I regularly room Vincent when we meet at RMC on this great moment of solitude!

Philippe Saint-André, at franceinfo

Contrary to what is done across the Channel, the two teams are separated on two large tables. “The problem was the language barrier, remembers Rory Underwood. Aside from Franck Mesnel, there weren't many of them who were gibbering three words of English “. The heart is not there, whatever one does there. “At the time, we didn't really want to mix with the English anyway”, grumbles Jean-Luc Sadourny.

“I remember a banquet a little 'grimace soup' on the French side, with a touch of arrogance in front, says Alain Penaud. Note that if we had won, the scenario would have been the opposite. “ This is not the memory that Franck Mesnel keeps, the most fluent of the gang, who remembers a long tale of Will Carling. The English captain has crisp anecdotes to tell. “He was conquering Lady Di! We had other cats to whip than to have a mouth. ” It will still be necessary to wait until 1995, and a memorable third half based on crème fraîche, so that players from two camps finally break the ice, and put the horrible 1992 crunch in the cupboard with (bad) memories.

>> Text: Pierre Godon


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