A time of progress
April 1, 2009
Lucien Mias leads France out against the Springboks in 1958 © Scrum.com
For France the 1950s in rugby, as in many other areas of national life, was a time of change, transformation and unprecedented progress.
The club scene was dominated by Jean Prat's Lourdes team, champions six times between 1952 and 1960, still strong claimants for the title bestowed by Henri Garcia in 1973 of 'the greatest team ever produced by French rugby'.
The national team, readmitted to the Five Nations in 1947, won for the first time at Twickenham (1951), Murrayfield (1952) and Cardiff (1958). In 1954 they beat New Zealand for the first time and four years later, in the tour commemorated by Denis Lalanne's superb book The Great Fight of the French XV, achieved something that would remain beyond the All Blacks for many years to come, a series victory in South Africa.
One prize, though, remained beyond them until the end of the decade. Though much more competitive than ever before, France could not quite win an outright championship. They came desperately, tantalisingly, close in 1955 - winning their first three matches before going down 16-11 to a Rees Stephens-inspired Wales at the Stade Colombes, leaving only a title shared with their conquerors as consolation. A year earlier they had shared the championship with Wales and England while in 1951 only a 9-8 defeat by Ireland made the Irish champions and France runners-up.
Though he led four more French championship teams, the 1955 defeat by Wales was Prat's last Five Nations match. Perhaps uncoincidentally, France's fortunes declined, with a mid-table finish in 1956 followed by losing all four in 1957.
The following year, 1958, is remembered in France for recalls. Charles de Gaulle returned from his self-imposed exile in Colombey les Deux Eglises to become president while Lucien Mias, dropped after the defeat by Wales in 1954, came back to the national team on the back of his superb form with Mazamet, whom he led to that year's championship final.
'Doctor Pack', as he was known for his profession and his theorizing about forward play, took time to make an international impact. France lost their first two matches in 1958, with a 14-0 loss to England at the Colombes provoking a mass clear-out. Michel Celaya remained the captain, in name at least, until Mias took over in South Africa.
A spirited finish in 1958, including that first win at Cardiff, and the South African victories meant France had every reason to hope in 1959. It was, as David Hands wrote his history of the Five Nations 'one of those seasons when no side could sustain a run of success'. France beat Scotland 9-0 in their opener, then drew 3-3 at Twickenham. Results elsewhere meant that they came to their third match, against Wales on 4th April 1959 knowing that whoever won would take the title.
With 65,000 packed into the Stade Colombes, there was never much doubt about it as France's pack dominated. Veteran Alfred Roques ruled the scrummage while his Cahors team-mate Bernard Mommejat dominated the line-out, where France won possession 31 times to Wales's 13. Mias was involved in the moves for the two French tries, scored by mobile Racing Club back-rower Francois Moncla, whose season of triumph would be completed by leading his club as it first ended Lourdes four-year reign as champions in the semi-finals, then won its first title in 57 years by beating Mont de Marsan.
To win by 11-3 hardly sounds resounding, but it was the only double-figure score in the lowest-scoring of all Five Nations seasons, with an average of only 9.3 points per match.
It was not perhaps victory as France had dreamed of it, but after 49 years of waiting, nobody greatly cared. Nor did it greatly matter that they lost their final match in Dublin and ended with a playing record inferior to their predecessors of 1951, 1954 and 1955. Mias, who as Lalanne wrote 'in two seasons made up for more than 60 years of backwardness in forward play' retired at the end of the season, devoting himself to his medical practice. It was the last international too for Wales's captain Clem Thomas, although it was far from the end for a connection with France that remained so strong that he has the rare honour of appearing, lightly disguised, in Kleber Haedens' 1974 novel Adios.
For the championship it was a real tipping point. In 1959 France still had by far the poorest playing record of the Five Nations, with only 38 victories in 34 seasons and a losing record against every opponent. Moncla led France to a share of the title in 1960 then an outright crown in 1961. He was dropped after a chastening trip to New Zealand in 1961, but scrum-half Pierre Lacroix led France to another title in 1962. As Observer correspondent and former England captain Bert Toft wrote in 1959 it was 'like finding the South Africans or All Blacks on one's doorstep'.
While other nations have had their periods of dominance, notably Wales in the 1970s and England in the nineties, the past half-century has been France's with 14 outright titles (Wales are next with 11), and eight Grand Slams to Wales and England's five apiece. Over those 50 seasons France have 279 championship points, a lead of 46 over nearest rivals England. If historians have labelled France's first 30 postwar years as the 'Treinte Glorieuses' for the transformation of the nation, French rugby fans might well reflect that their 'Cinquante Glorieuses' began with victory at the Colombes on 4th April 1959.