France claim historic triumph in South Africa
John Palfrey
August 18, 2008
Captains Lucien Mias and Peter Taylor lead out the sides during France's 1958 tour of South Africa
France's Lucien Mias and South Africa's Peter Taylor lead out their sides ©

On 8th July 1958, the French national team arrived in Salisbury (now Harare, Zimbabwe) for its first ever Tour in a Commonwealth country.

Of course, France had already played against all the major rugby union teams and had toured in Argentina in 1949 and 1954.

The 'Tricolores' had even defeated the All Blacks (3-0) in Paris on a famous day at Stade Colombes in 1954 - but they had never played away against one of the sport's big three - Australia, New Zealand and South Africa.

So what better way to test the progress of French rugby than to send them for a five week trip against the Springboks and their best provinces.

A squad of 27 players were assembled and were asked by René Crabos (French rugby legend and President of the FFR at the time) to 'do their best, give a good account of French rugby and to try to win one or two games'.

Back then few would have predicted what this team, led by Lucien Mias, would go on to achieve.

For they would succeed where all other nations had failed, including the mighty All Blacks, by winning a series in South Africa.

And even more, they impressed the locals throughout their ten game tour with the fighting spirit of their forwards and the skills of their back lines.

From that day French rugby would never again be considered just an 'interesting' team, but instead a side that could beat the best in the world on their day.

The 27 players who wrote a famous chapter in the history of French rugby were:

Raoul Barrière, Jean Barthe, Robert Baulon, Jean Carrère, Louis Casaux, Michel Celaya, Pierre Danos, Jean Dupuy, Louis Echave, Pierre Fremaux, Jean de Grogorio, André Haget, Pierre Lacaze, Pierre Lacroix, Jacques Lepatey, Arnaud Marquesuzaa, Roger Martine, Lucien Mias (cap), Bernard Mommejat, François Moncla, Aldo Quaglio, Henri Rancoule, Lucien Roge, Alfred Roques, Guy Stener, MichelVannier, Roger Vigier.

Manager : Serge Saulnier ; Assistant manager : Marcel Laurent

Two journalists and one photographer also travelled with the squad, including the famous sports writer Denis Lalanne.


France began their tour on July 12 with a 19-0 victory over Rhodesia in Salisbury (now Harare, Zimbabwe), scoring four tries in the process.

The tourists had been warned this game would be the easiest of what was sure to be a bruising tour, even if the British Isles only managed a narrow 16-12 victory three years before.

The flambuoyant visitors wasted no time in making an impression - straight from the kick off.

Lucien Mias received the kick and passed the ball to Jean Barthe who dashed 60 metres upfield only to be dragged down just short of the line.

But he was able to offload to François Moncla, who threw the ball to winger Jacques Lepatey but the chance was gone.

Even if the try was not scored, they had made the best possible start to the tour, signalling their intent with a breath-taking passage of play.

The sweeping move gave momentum to an adventure that will remain forever at the heart of French rugby.

It was not all good news for France who suffered their first two injuries of the tour to Michel Celaya and Lepatey.

But of more concern to the ambitious squad were the opportunities to score that had been missed.

A large victory by 40 or more points should have been recorded by the tourists - one that would have created a great deal of interest back home in France where the focus was on the football side that had finished third at the recent World Cup in Sweden and the political crisis that would lead to the return of General de Gaulle at the head of the state.

Nevertheless, the French side had made a winning start to their first ever tour of a Commonwealth country and were quite rightly looking forward to the rest of the tour.


Four days after their victory against Rhodesia, France took on Northern and Western Transvaal in Pretoria.

A large crowd of 30,000 people gathered at Loftus Versfeld in the expectation of seeing the hosts crush the tourists but instead were treated to a thrilling clash.

France led 10-3 late in the first half but the South Africans, led by Springbok skipper Johann Claassen raised their game and a ferocious battle ensued.

With just 20 minutes to go in the second half France were trailing 19-10, but their talented backline conjured a late surge with two tries to bring them to within a point and a successful conversion would see them clinch a memorable victory.

It then fell to Pierre Lacaze, carrying a collarbone injury, to take the kick in front of the posts - but he missed when it seemed easier to score.

The four tries to three victory went to the Northern and Western Transvaal and defeat came at a further cost to the French with Louis Casaux, Lacaze, Lucien Mias, Louis Echave and Pierre Danos all joining the injury list.

But with another impressive display the tourists continued to cause a stir with many South-African voices a little alarmed by the style and courage of the visitors.

Some leading journalists even started to consider the previously unlikely idea that France could win at least one Test match - a result that would highlight the limits of their own national side.

This was confirmed Saturday 19 July, against what was supposed to be the best South African provincial side: Natal, Transvaal and East Transvaal.

The referee had been instructed to make sure the violence of the game in Pretoria wouldn't be repeated.

But despite the fact that Natal won 37 scrums against 9, the French demonstrated that winning the ball isn't everything.

They were reminded that you need to be able to use it in the best way possible and play for the full 80 minutes.

Full back Michel Vannier was badly injured in the 25th minute, and was replaced by Roger Martine on proposal of the Natal skipper Peter Taylor.

The scores were locked at 5-5 at half time but France battled to a 13-11 lead with just three minutes left in the game.

But a penalty kick for Natal gave them a 14-13 lead as the game entered the closing stages.

But there was more to come as the tourists rallied themselves once more.

Henri Rancoule managed to get his hands on the ball and swerved his way around the Natal defence before off-loading to François Moncla who dotted down for his second try of the match.

Prop Raoul Barrière was unable to notch the conversion but France held on for a 16-14 victory, outscoring their hosts four tries to two.


With the 1st Test against South Africa looming, France had one more opportunity to sharpen their game against Orange Free State in Bloemfonein.

It would be a largely experimental line-up that would take to the field with Pierre Danos, usually a scrum half, featuring at at fullback in one of the notable changes.

Elsewhere winger Jacques Lepatey would be playing even though he hadn't fully recovered from the injury he sustained against Rhodesia in the opening match of the tour.

The match itself was another brutal encounter with numerous fights and both sides showing a willingness to meet fire with fire.

But with another physical battering came more injuries for the tourists with Michel Celaya, Pierre Lacroix and André Haget all suffering.

The final score was 11-11 but that was small consolation for the French who missed a relatively easy conversion that may have won them the game.

The Orange Free State players made sure the tourists left Bloemfontein with a stark warning rining in their ears - "In Capetown, the Springboks will kill you all!"

The South Africa pack was indeed built for a power game but France made sure they were ready.

Hooker Roger Vigier prepared the French scrum so they would be able to counter their opponents' power with prop Alfred Roques becoming its cornerstone.

In the meantime, Roger Martine explained to his team mates the "secrets" of the Lourdes back moves.

As a a result, for the first time ever France would play as a true team - and not just as a selection of players.

For the first half hour the battle was so fierce that both teams had forgotten to score but the visitors opened the scoring soon after with Danos slotting a difficult drop goal.

France held onto their narrow 3-0 lead until half-time and were unlucky not to go further ahead when Danos was later denied a try.

In the end the Springboks were rewarded for their own endeavours when No.8 Butch Lochner scored a try in the corner.

France handed their hosts a lesson in ball retention for the last ten minutes of the game but were unable to break the deadlock.

The final whistle came with the sides still level - France had once again impressed, holding the might Springboks despite losing winger Henri Rancoule to injury for the duration of the second half.


Four days after the first test, France were to face Western Province, Boland and South West District in Wellington.

By now the French team were a motley looking crew with injuries and fatigue plaguing the squad - as a result they were on the end of a demoralising 38-8 defeat and were outscored five tries to one.

The only positive news to come from the game was the fact that they escaped with no further injuries.

After six games, the tourists had notched two victories and two draws and been on the wrong side of a defeat twice. The last four games would therefore define whether the first tour of one of the three southern hemisphere giants would be a success or failure.

And the result of their next match did not bode well with the Junior Springboks edging them out 9-5 the following weekend in Port Elizabeth.

The heavy rain didn't help the French backs when they tried to execute the moves inspired by Roger Martine and his know-how from the famous Lourdes back rows.

Thanks to the reports relayed back home to France by Denis Lalanne, the expectations were starting to grow on home soil, espcecially since the battling 1st Test draw in Cape Town.

All of his articles would later be compiled into a book released in early 1959, entitled "Le Grand combat du XV de France" (The great battle of the French XV), the first ever French sports book to become a best-seller, and still in print today.

Those fans who were eagerly reading the reports, in L'Equipe or Midi Olympique, had started to get the impression that something big was happening in South Africa and so two defeats in a row served to halt this momentum.

Off the field there was also trouble with a row brewing between French officials and the referees about the increase in late tackles - one that would offer a new perspective to the last three games of the tour.

Captain Lucien Mias attempted to diffuse the tension by insisting that even if the South African players were tough and physical, at least they were not as brutal as some players that could be found in French rugby.

This diplomatic contribution from Mias was enough to quell the fire before it became a "political incident".


After suffering successive defeats to Western Province, Boland and South West District, and then the Junior Springboks, the French were under a great deal of pressure to get the tour back on track.

And they did just that with two hard-fought victories in a week.

The first of those came against a Border, Eastern Province and North-Eastern Districts side in East London with the visitors winning 16-9 and outscoring their hosts four tries to one.

Scrum-half Pierre Danos had an outstanding game but his dazzling performance was overshadowed by a bad knee injury suffered by flanker Michel Celaya that put him in doubt for the crucial second Test.

France's last outing before the eagerly-awaited clash with the Springboks came on 9 August in Durban where they took on South African Universities.

Another strong opening saw France build an 18-5 half-time lead and for the first time on the tour their opponents suffered an injury blow.

Centre Wilf Rosenberg was forced from the field and with the agreement of French captain Lucien Mias was replaced by Holtzausen.

The French raised their game in the second period with the forwards dominating their opponents and the backs making the best of the ball.

As a result they recorded a comprehensive 32-16 victory that included six tries.

And so the stage was set for the second Test and the final game of the tour.

France had the opportunity to record an historic series triumph on South African soil and succeed where every other nation had failed.

With a record of four victories, two draws and three defeats the French team had at least done much better than the President of the French Federation had predicted.

"Do your best, give a good image of the French rugby and try to win one or two games," he had said on the eve of the tour.

But something was happening, French rugby was gaining increasing respect, and this Tour, whatever the result of the second Test match, would stand forever as a founding moment.

Released in 2007, the documentary "Le Grand Combat du XV de France", inspired by Denis Lalanne's book and directed by Serge Tignères, gives a good idea of how this Tour was not only a sporting success, but a story of human endeavour, a contest between a few brave men and a proud rugby nation.


The date is Saturday 16 August 1958, and at 3:15 pm in front of a crowd of 100,000 fans South Africa and France would go head-to-head in their series decider.

The whole week before the game, the South African press had predicted that "there will be blood at Ellis Park".

To escape the pressure, the French team spent two days visiting Kruger Park. The referee for the Test was Mr. Ackerman, the same man as in the first game of the tour against Rhodesia in Salisbury.

The French line-up for this crucial clash was: Lacaze - Dupuy, Marquesuzaa, Martine, Stener - Haget, Danos - Roques, Vigier, Quaglio - Mias, Mommejat - Moncla, Barthe, Carrère.

They were a team ready to enter the realms of legend. The first minutes of the game showed that the Springboks, after all the criticism they endured in the past six weeks, had the intention to beat France at their own game: a mixture of strong and fast forwards, and a skilful back line.

It soon became clear that this would be a very entertaining game: a penalty kick for France (15'), followed by a South African try scored 10 minutes later after a great move started by scrum half Tommy Gentles and finished by winger Loftie Fourie.

The score - 5-3 to the hosts.

It was during this game that Lucien Mias, the French lock and captain, would produce his best ever performance in a French jersey.

After the game, the South African newspapers even made the impressive statement that he deserved the title of "the best international forward ever to be seen in South Africa".

The scrums were equally shared, but France came out on top in the line outs (17 out of 29 won in the whole game).

Just before half-time, the French No.8 Jean Barthe scored a try but hopes were dashed when it was disallowed.

At the beginning of the second half, the Springbok pack did their very best to put the pressure on the French defence.

But no other points were scored, as Barthe was always there to cover his wings. This pressure lasted 20 very long minutes.

The first time France put their hands on the ball in front of the Springbok posts, Pierre Lacaze scored a drop goal to make the score France 6 - South Africa 5.

Now, for the last 16 minutes, it was the Springboks that were under pressure, and with 5 minutes to go, centre Roger Martine scored another drop goal to make it 9-5.

The Holy Grail of French rugby was there, within arms reach.

The final desperate rush of the Springboks didn't change the score. The game ended. At that very moment, the players knew that they had made history.

It was all thanks to 27 brave French players. Nobody will ever take that away from them. The following morning, the Sunday Express wrote "At Ellis Park, a man cried", and that man was South African.

On Monday 18 August 1958, just over 50 years ago, a plane left Johannesburg with 27 heroes, men that will be celebrated forever on French soil.

Survivors of that founding moment of French rugby will gather in early September in the South of France, around their skipper Lucien Mias, so they can be thanked once again for their famous exploits.

A movie will be shot during that meeting, a movie to be seen soon on ESPN Classic. Stay tuned for full details.

Tour Matches:

Saturday 12 July, Salisbury: Rhodesia. Won 19-0

Wednesday 16 July, Pretoria: Northern and Western Transvaal. Lost 18-19

Saturday 19 July, Springs: Eastern Transvaal, Natal and Transvaal. Won 16-14

Tuesday 22 July, Bloemfontein: Orange Free State, Griqualand West and South West Africa. Draw 11-11

Saturday 26 July, Capetown: South Africa (1st Test). Draw 3-3

Wednesday 30 July, Wellington: Western Province, Boland and South West Districts. Lost 38-8

Saturday 2 August, Port-Elizabeth: Juniors Springboks. Lost 9-5

Wednesday 6 August, East-London: Border, Eastern Province and North-Eastern Districts. Won 16-9

Saturday 9 August, Durban: South African Universities. Won 32-16

Saturday 16 August, Johannesburg : South Africa (2nd Test). Won 9-5


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