Big spending rugby union scouts were waiting outside Stade Ernest Wallon in Toulouse after the French rugby league side scored six tries in a gutsy 52-30 loss to World Champions, Australia.
In a performance which harked back to France’s glory days of the 1950s and ’60s, the home side led 16-6 after 25 minutes, and then trailed only 34-30 with five minutes left, before Australia scored three tries, for a final scoreline which Australian coach, Wayne Bennett said flattered his side.
Second rower, Craig Fitzgibbon finished with 16 points from two tries and four goals, Winger, Frederick Zitter scored two tries for France, while five eighth, Maxime Greseque finished with 10 points from a try and three goals. (Maxime is the son of Ivan Greseque, who was halfback in the 1981 series in Australia, my first Test assignment as a full time rugby league writer).
Australian skipper, Darren Lockyer made his return from a rib injury he had suffered against New Zealand at Loftus Road in London in October.
Bennett said France’s willingness to keep the ball alive created plenty of anxious moments.
“They played a lot differently to any Australian or English side I’ve seen in the last five or six years, and I enjoyed that,” he said. “They showed a lot of lovely skills and support play, and little support balls. Things we’ve got away from at home.”
After losing only 24-20 to New Zealand at Carcassonne, earlier in the month, and then backing it up with another fine effort against Australia, the French league side had earned new respect, and the match against Australia proved a ratings winner on pay television.
But there was a risk a positive could quickly turn into a negative, with rich rugby union clubs set to pounce on emerging talent.
“I could lose a couple of players within 24 hours,” said Mick Aldous, the Australian, given the French coaching reins seven weeks earlier, taking over from Englishman, Bobby Goulding. “They’ve got the money we can only dream of. There were a lot of union scouts at the game and they were waiting in the car park.”
Second rower, Djamel Fakir, 22, a product of Villeneuve-sur-Lot Leopards, was believed to be the main target of the union scouts after his barn storming effort against Australia.
Aldous said Fakir would succeed in the NRL as would Greseque; halfback, Julien Rinaldi; fullback Renaud Guigue and hooker, David Berthezene.
On the same weekend as Australia played France, Great Britain defeated the Kiwis 28-26 in Hull, to finish on top of the Tri-Nations table.
That set-up an Australia v Britain final at Elland Road, Leeds, which Australia went on to win 44-4.
I had the honor of covering the full tour for The Courier-Mail and Sydney’s Daily Telegraph. (See ‘Ban Lifted for PR Reasons’ and ‘Kangaroos on Tour under Bennett’) on this website.
<pics>Mark O’Meley in the thick of the action against France.