This week marks the 10th anniversary of the match believed by many to be the greatest ever played. It took place at Twickenham, on October 31, 1999, in a World Cup semi-final, when France, having trailed New Zealand 24-10 early in the second half, suddenly exploded back, scoring 33 unanswered points before the All Blacks claimed a consolation try near the end.

How did it happen? How did New Zealand, the overwhelming favourites, manage to lose a match they already seemed to have won? From where did France summon the pride and self-belief to turn the rugby world on its head in their glorious half-hour of brilliance? How bright are their memories now, and how deep the All Blacks’ scars?

Alasdair Reid spoke to three key figures from that day – New Zealand fly-half Andrew Mehrtens, France forward Abdelatif Benazzi and Scottish referee Jim Fleming – and asked them to relive their memories.


The All Blacks seemed to be coasting to the World Cup triumph they had been denied in 1995, beating England and Scotland on their way to the semi-final. France had struggled through their pool, surviving a scare against Fiji before showing a glimpse of form in their quarter-final win against Argentina. Everyone expected an easy All Blacks victory and their predictions seemed valid as they raced into an early lead.

Andrew Mehrtens: “We weren’t comfortable with that. We weren’t as good a team as some parts of the New Zealand media were making out. We never bought into that ourselves. There was no over-confidence among our players going into the game. People have said we had one eye on the final by the end of the first half, but that just wasn’t the case.

“We had arrived for the World Cup in an Air New Zealand jumbo jet that had been painted up with images of our front row. It was All Blacks this and All Blacks that, and nobody in the team was comfortable with that. Nobody at all. New Zealand had their hopes up for what they thought was righting the wrong of 1995.”

Abdelatif Benazzi: “We knew we had to put up a great performance against the All Blacks, but we were boosted by our performance against the Argentines in Dublin the previous weekend. That was despite people believing there was a huge imbalance between the two sides.

“I think that prior to the performance against Argentina we had frustrated a lot of people with the way we had played. I think the All Blacks already thought they were in the final, although we realised we would have to beat a magnificent team if we were going to stop them.”

Jim Fleming: “I was actually a little disappointed that I was given the game as it meant my last chance of doing a World Cup final had evaporated. But once I got over that I really looked forward to it.

“I had done the All Blacks against Italy earlier in the tournament, when they won by about 100 points, so it was easy to understand why people thought they would win relatively easily. Certainly the bookies thought that way.”

AB: “Of course we were afraid, as the All Blacks were the strong favourites. However, we thought we had a good game plan, and we also had one of the finest scrum-halves in Fabien Galthie. More importantly, we had discovered a kicker in Christophe Lamaison.

“The All Blacks helped us enormously by picking Byron Kelleher ahead of Justin Marshall at scrum-half. They also put Christian Cullen, a brilliant full-back, out of position in the centre. Our Richard Dourthe took care of him with two tackles early on.”

AM: “Yes, Cullen was out of position. He hadn’t had a lot of time at centre at international level. He was a superb player, a guy you would think could play anywhere, but it’s different against a side like France in a World Cup semi.

“We just didn’t have a team who had been playing together for a few years as other successful teams have had. You need a settled core of players. When it comes to a tough game 
those are the guys who pull you through.”

JF: “It’s incredible to recall that the penalty count in the first half was something like 13-1 against France. If yellow cards had been in use at the time then at least two Frenchmen would have been in the bin. They were trying to slow the ball down as much as possible and they were being a bit naive about it.

“As we came down the tunnel at half time, their captain, Raphael Ibanez, asked me what the problem was. I told him that they were lying around at the tackle, going off their feet, killing the ball. I said they had to be more disciplined. He said: ‘Right. OK.’ And that was that.”


For all their own insecurities, New Zealand had still dominated the first period. Lamaison scored an early try for France, but the mighty Jonah Lomu replied with one for the All Blacks soon afterwards. As Fleming penalised France’s transgressions, Mehrtens clipped over a series of penalties. At the interval, New Zealand led 17-10.

Another trademark Lomu try came along in the 45th minute, and it seemed that the favourites were home and dry. But France came back with a couple of dropped goals by Lamaison, then a couple of penalties to reduce the deficit to two points. And then came 20 minutes of fabulous Gallic flair.

It began with a 56th minute try by Christophe Dominici, who collected a bouncing ball then sprinted past Mehrtens. Four minutes later, Dourthe scored again, finishing a magnificent break from deep by Olivier Magne. With panic rising in New Zealand ranks, Philippe Bernat-Salles piled on the agony with his 74th-minute try.

JF: “For 10 minutes it seemed that it was all done and dusted. There was only one team in it. The All Blacks had the game by the short and curlies. But for some unknown reason, it just changed. France had nothing to lose, so they just went for it.

“I think those dropped goals settled their nerves. They just kept coming back and coming back with typical French flair. Once they had the sun on their backs they could do no wrong. Everything went their way for 20 minutes.”

AB: “Our backs kicked the ball behind the All Blacks. That tired them, as they had to go back the whole time to get the ball. We got to the second half having done nothing in the first half, but Lamaison kicked two penalties 
and a drop goal and we grew in confidence.”

AM: “Every team lift themselves to play the All Blacks. I hope that doesn’t sound arrogant, but it’s true. So in a World Cup once you’re through your pool you’re playing three big games, and it’s hard to win them all against teams who are very fired-up inside.

“And French teams also have a very good pack mentality. They can be inconsistent, but if it just happens to be one of those days when everyone turns up they can be very, very good. You sense the lift in them. If they decide they’re all on board then they can be very strong and bloody hard to stop.”

JF: “There were no controversies, nothing of any real note at least. I can look back and say that no decision I made affected the outcome of that game. It was down to the French realising that they had to change the way they played and did so. They got good quick ball and just ran and ran at the All Blacks.

“It was so frenetic and fast. Afterwards, I realised it had been a good game of rugby, but it took a while to realise how exciting and fast-moving it had been. And how dramatic.”

AB: “We knew that up front we were stronger in terms of the physical challenge, aggression, and the combat. We knew that the scrums would be relatively easy, especially with Anton Oliver at hooker. But behind we still knew it would be tough.”

AM: “On paper, it has to be one of the big shocks, but we didn’t really see it that way. We were playing a good French team and we lost. We didn’t go in there thinking it was going to be easy. Every time they got down our end they came away with points. It just seemed so simple. I seemed to be turning round to go back and kick off all the time.

“It was kind of galling to hear all the English people sing Allez les Bleus. That was possibly the worst part.”


The result stunned the rugby world. The 1999 tournament had been a rather flat affair up to that point, but France’s victory was a sensational outcome. The two teams headed for Cardiff – the All Blacks to take on South Africa in the third-place play-off, France to face Australia in the final.

In New Zealand, the anger was intense. Many in the country felt let down by a team in which they had placed huge faith. All Blacks coach John Hart resigned a few days later.

New Zealand, clearly disinterested, lost the play-off to the Springboks 22-18. Two days later, France lost the final, 35-12, to Australia, without ever coming close to reaching the heights of brilliance they had shown at Twickenham.

AM: “It was death in the changing room. Like a funeral parlour. We were shattered.”

AB: “It is fair to say that we played our final that day at Twickenham. The feeling was crazy after the final whistle. For me, that was seven times I had played the All Blacks and four victories, and every time I had played them I grew psychologically.

“However, for the real final we were just tired both mentally and physically. It was as if we were playing in the Tri-Nations and had played three huge matches in three weeks.”

AM: “Playing in the play-off game was like having to lip kiss your grandmother. It was awful. All we could try and do was put in a good performance, but it was a game no one wanted to play. It was an ugly game and we deserved to lose.

“Funnily enough, it brought South African and New Zealand supporters closer together. They were crying into their beers together. At the final dinner, we did the same. We picked out the South African players and we all had a cracking good night together.”

JF: “After the semi, I remember standing at the after-match function and one of the touch judges turned to me and asked if I would be able to get the daggers out of my back. I didn’t understand what he was saying, but apparently John Hart had been three or four yards behind me and he never took his eyes off me.

“He was glowering at me as if it was all my fault. I think he realised that the writing was on the wall for him.”

AM: “Most of our supporters were OK, but you get a few who think the world owes them something. I really felt for John Hart. When he got back to New Zealand his race horse got spat on at a meet in the South Island. He was devastated after that semi-final. We’re a small country, and passionate, but we’re a good country for the knee-jerk too.”

Additional reporting by Pirate Irwin