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Ahead of Ireland’s Six Nations clash with France on Sunday, former Ireland and Leinster international Reggie Corrigan takes a stroll down memory lane and recalls some of his standout battles with Les Bleus.
The first time I played against France was in 1998. The Stade de France was very new at the time and one thing that stood out in my memory was that the pitch was brown because they were having all these issues with the stadium blocking out the sunlight and they hadn’t factored that in.
I was laughing during the week looking at the video that went viral of the Irish team being brought to the [Italy] game by the Italian police. That was nothing compared to what happened with the French police because we stayed in Versailles which is outside the city a little bit. We were staying in a beautiful area, Warren Gatland was the coach at the time and we were massive underdogs for this game.
France were obviously red hot favourites, this was back in the day when France were an awesome team. We’d go to the match but they didn’t have a car, they had outriders on motorbikes. I remember some of the players like Peter Clohessy and Nick Popplewell saying to me, ‘wait until you see the trip to the stadium, it’s just incredible’. I was starting that game in 98′ and they took off from the hotel with four or five lads on bikes and they were absolutely nuts. They were doing 100 miles per hour through the streets of Paris on a bus. The bikes were just kicking cars and flying in and out of traffic. Literally, physically, kicking cars to get them out of the way and push them over through four, five lanes of traffic on the motorway and then right the way into the streets of Paris and into the city to the ground.
Once the game starts, the French bring a very different sort of atmosphere to a game. There were literally live cockerels being released from the crowd. How they got them in is beyond me but they were being released around the place. On the pitch, there are drums, trumpets – a serious carnival atmosphere going around the place.
It gives you goosebumps, even thinking back now, it gives you goosebumps but that’s the kind of atmosphere that is created in France. In that game, in particular, my opposite numbers were Christian Califano who played for Toulouse alongside Franck Tournaire, they were the two powerhouses in the front row for Toulouse and Tournaire was my opposite man.
They were just brilliant props – they were well-known, renowned players and I was quite nervous going into the game. You knew you were in for a battle going in against France and at that time, they were a much more physical team than they would be now in the sense that anything went, there was literally boot, bite and bollock. It really was that kind of old school, French play. You knew you were going to get absolutely smashed at every opportunity and they didn’t let us down that day either!
We were actually winning that game and we thought we had it in the bag. They got a breakaway try at the end and we lost by two points. My claim to fame is that we were winning when I went off! There was a lineout we had inside the 22 and we messed that lineout up. As a result of that, they got pressure on us and scored. The scoreline was 22-20.
It just goes to show you the way times have changed. That was considered a great result at the time. To go there, get a result and come so close – it was considered a really good result, everyone was high-fiving each other afterwards that we didn’t get hammered by 50. That shows where France were and where we were.
Another memory would be playing them in Paris again. I wasn’t due to play this game. It was 2006, it was my last game for Ireland. I hadn’t been picked initially and I was retiring that year but Marcus Horan picked up an injury the week of the match. I was brought back in for the game and I played that match in Paris.
We went out and we were 33-0 down at half-time. We were absolutely whacked in the first half. France came out and did what France are capable of doing and were on fire. They were offloading from everywhere, they were flicking balls out the back and they were scoring at will. I remember at one stage, running around the pitch, trying to make tackles and it was like we were chasing shadows the whole time. We just couldn’t get near them.
Just after halftime, there were wholesale changes made throughout the team and in fairness to the lads that came on, they made a difference. I don’t know if France took their foot off the pedal a little bit or what happened, but we came back into the game and made the scoreline a little more respectable but at no stage did we ever look like we were going to win it. So we were well and truly beaten.
It’s a difficult week, the French week. It’s a very nervous week because there’s something about the French games in those days whereby you knew that there was a danger of getting your arses handed to you. You could get a 50 point drubbing. You knew that was always a possibility with France. It was almost a case of trying to get yourself into a position whereby you were able to control them. You knew with the French, the way things were if they started well, you were in trouble and you were in for a long day.
The preparation was all around defence initially, doing your setpieces right and just working on those types of things. If the French players got their confidence up, then you knew you were in trouble. They would just run all day long. ‘Jouer, Jouer!’ would be the calls that would be coming from them, you would hear it from the rest of them and the bench say it as well. It would be that ‘Jouer’ play – play the ball, let’s go, offload everything, never go to ground, don’t look to get tackled and create a ruck. It was always flicking balls and real continuity. That’s what they were brilliant at.
Christophe Dominici, Thomas Castaignede at 10, Emile Ntamack, Serge Betsen in the back row and Raphael Ibanez in at hooker – these were all guys that were icons of French rugby. They were great guys as well but tough men. You came off a French game and you were battered, absolutely battered. You wouldn’t be right for three or four days afterwards.
Unfortunately, they’ve lost that style of rugby. They now have this horrible power game, smashing it up with big players, trying to recycle the ball and then more big players coming around the corner. But back in the earlier days, 10 or 15 years ago, it was all about flair and they played a lovely style of rugby.