From The Vaults

08 September 2023
France at the men's Rugby World Cup 1987-2023

Successive French teams have enriched each of the men's world cup tournaments in their own inimitable style since the historic initial tournament in Australia and New Zealand in 1987.

France travelled to the tournament in May 1987 as the Five Nations grand slam champions. Their squad contained some of the greatest names in French rugby history and a mesmeric backline including Serge Blanco at full back, Philippe Sella in the centre and Pierre Berbizier at scrum half.

After the opening match in their group at Christchurch in which they were lucky to hold off Scotland in a 20-20 draw, they moved through the two other pool matches with ease before facing a rugged Fiji in the quarter-finals. A hard-fought affair, the control and kicking expertise of fly half Guy Laporte saw them through to a semi-final against Australia at the Concord Oval in Sydney.

This was the first of the great World Cup matches. Desperately close though with the lead constantly changing, France won the day 30-24 with a sensational try by Serge Blanco in the left-hand corner deep in injury time.

Four years later the tournament took place in the northern hemisphere and was shared between the four home nations and France. France had the advantage of playing all their pool matches in their own country and they won comfortably against Romania in Beziers and Fiji in Grenoble, followed by a close-fought 19-13 victory against an impressive Canada team in Agen.

They moved to Parc des Princes in Paris for their quarter-final clash against England, the current Five Nations grand slam champions. Captained by the great Serge Blanco in what would be his 93rd and final international, the French failed to match the England pack and their discipline let them down in the second half. A tight encounter ultimately ended in a convincing victory for England who would go on to lose to Australia in the Final at Twickenham two weeks later.

South Africa entered the competition following the collapse of the apartheid regime and hosted the 1995 tournament. They beat the holders Australia in the first match and immediately established their credentials as one of the sides to beat. The All Blacks introduced a young giant of a winger in Jonah Lomu so it was as well that France took a very experienced squad to South Africa.

France comfortably overcame Tonga and the Ivory Coast but nearly came unstuck when facing Scotland in Pretoria. It took a late try in injury time scored by winger Emile Ntamack and converted by Thierry Lacroix to give them a narrow 22-19 victory. In the quarter-finals they faced Ireland at King's Park Durban. Once again they were indebted to Thierry Lacroix who kicked eight penalty goals and a conversion to add to tries by Ntamack and their captain Philippe Saint-Andre which gave them a comfortable 36-12 victory.

1995 Semi-Final

Their semi-final against South Africa was a desperately close affair very nearly cancelled due to torrential rain in the hours leading up to the match. Lacroix kicked five penalty goals on a water-logged pitch and the Springboks led by four points in the dying minutes when the French forwards drove for the line and the referee decreed that Abdel Benazzi had been held up just short.

This left the Springboks victors by 19-15 and the French assuaged their regrets by beating England 19-9 to win the third place consolation prize.

The 1999 World Cup was based in the Northern hemisphere with Wales given the honour of hosting the final in their new Millennium Stadium. France's three pool matches were played in France and once again France overcame lesser opposition in Canada and Namibia without being entirely convincing. Their final pool match against Fiji in Toulouse gave them a real fright and their lack of cohesion in an eventual victory by 28-19 was a major concern. However, their quarter-final against Argentina saw the emergence of Christophe Lamaison at fly half in the place of the injured Thomas Castaignède. He kicked 22 points and managed an increasingly dangerous backline with outstanding wingers Philippe Bernat-Salles and Christophe Dominici.

And so to the semi-final against the All Blacks at Twickenham where France produced possibly the finest forty minutes of inspirational rugby ever played in a world cup. Orchestrated by Lamaison who scored 28 points in the match and down five minutes after half-time by 24-10, France proceeded to score three tries and 33 points without reply to send New Zealand crashing out of the tournament. The Final at Cardiff a week later was a game too far. Australia outplayed the French side to win the cup but the French semi-final remains the chief memory from this tournament.

2003 Play-Off

2003 was very much England's year but France topped their pool group with convincing victories over Fiji, Japan, Scotland and the USA. The substantial victory over Scotland by 51-9 was seen as an indicator of France's strength and this was enhanced when they knocked out Ireland by 43-21 in the quarter-final. England waited for them in the semi-final but, despite an early converted try from Serge Betsen, France could not match England's all-round power and, above all, the kicking of Jonny Wilkinson. His five penalty goals and three drop goals saw England through to the Final and France finished fourth after losing the third place play-off to the All Blacks.

France were enthusiastic hosts in 2007 and widely tipped to do well. The wheels came off alarmingly when they lost their opening match 17-12 to Argentina and this loss meant that they came second in their pool which sent them off to Cardiff to play the All Blacks in the quarter-final. In a thrilling and very close match, Yannick Jauzion scored a crucial try in the second half and the All Blacks failed to take their chances. The narrow 20-18 victory meant that France was facing England again in the semi-final but this time on home turf at the Stade de France in Paris. The result however was the same and Jonny Wilkinson's steady kicking saw England through to the final by 14-9. France's disappointment was compounded when they were beaten 34-10 by a rampant Argentina team to consign them to fourth place for the second tournament in succession.

France went one better in 2011 by reaching the Final where they faced a very nervous All Blacks side at Eden Park, Auckland. New Zealand had beaten France comfortably in the pool stages but France secured second place and a quarter-final against their old nemesis England at Eden Park. Expertly marshalled by Dmitri Yachvili at scrum half and superbly led by Thierry Dusautoir from the back row, they defeated England by 19-12 and then beat Wales 9-8 in a contentious semi-final where the sending-off of the Wales captain Sam Warburton in the first half proved crucial.

2011 Final

In a very tight Final, the All Blacks led by 8-7 in the 50th minute and, despite a massive effort the experienced French team could not deliver the knock-out blow and no further points were scored by either side. The replacement fly half Francois Trinh-Duc gave the backline much needed impetus in the second half, but he missed a penalty kick that would have given France their victory. The All Blacks had won the trophy for the second time and were highly relieved to have done so.

The 2015 tournament returned to England who secured the unfortunate distinction of being the first home team to be eliminated before the knock-out stages. France's campaign included a 24-9 loss to Ireland in their final pool game played in Cardiff and this ensured that they met a rampant and exceptionally creative All Blacks side in Cardiff a week later. Despite much experience in their side, the French team was totally overwhelmed in the second half and the All Blacks won by 62-13.

In Japan four years later, France won three of their pool matches but the all-important clash with England was cancelled due to Typhoon Hagibis. England therefore went through as pool winners with a greater number of bonus points. This led to France playing Wales, the winners of Pool A, in the quarter-final. This match was a disaster for France. Despite leading comfortably by 19-10, France's giant second row forward Sebastian Vahaamahina was sent off in the 49th minute for illegal use of his elbow in making a tackle. Down to fourteen men, France could not stop Wales coming back into the match. Wales won 20-19, France was eliminated and Vahaamahina announced his retirement from international rugby the next day.

About The Author - A professional musician and arts administrator, Richard Steele has been on the committee of the World Rugby Museum at Twickenham since 2005 and is the co-author of the RFU's 150th anniversary book England Rugby 150 Years.


  • Official histories of the individual rugby world cups 1991-2015
  • Rothmans Rugby Yearbooks & World Rugby Yearbooks 1987-2016
  • XV de France - La Grande Aventure (L'Equipe 2006)
  • Rugby World Cup scrapbooks 1991-2019 (World Rugby Museum - compiled by Richard Steele)