First time's a charm
December 31, 2010
The Stade Colombes, seen here in 1924, hosted France's first Test victory © Getty Images
Their numbers are admittedly boosted by a more inclusive attitude to matches against opponents some other countries formerly considered unworthy of full Test status, but France can boast more victories - 366 - than any other rugby nation.
It took them a little while to get going however. Their debut was on New Year's Day 1906 against the All Blacks. It took them five years and a day, until January 2, 1911, and a dozen matches, before they marched off victorious.
The omens, at the Stade Colombes 100 years ago this week, were not exactly propitious. Scotland, their opponents, had won 27-0 at Inverleith in their first meeting a year earlier and while they did their new rivals the courtesy of agreeing to play in white shirts they had not extended recognition to the extent of awarding caps. The cold, crisp conditions were greeted by Scotland centre Fletcher Buchanan as 'real Scottish weather', leading him to forecast victory by a margin of 15 points.
There was an undoubted sense of anticipation, with police struggling to prevent a record crowd estimated at 8-10,000 from breaking on to the pitch. But France's main concern as the clock ticked around to kick-off time was one more characteristic of an Extra B team than a national XV - they were a man short. Centre Charles Vareilles was nowhere to be seen. Nor was reserve Andre Franquenelle. Chief selector Allan Muhr, an American resident in Paris who had been a member of that first ever French XV back in 1906, frantically searched the crowd for possible substitutes. He found centre Jacques Dedet and forward Rene Duval, both already capped. Both unfortunately had also already lunched too well to feel capable of playing.
Muhr eventually located Marcel Laffitte of Stade Bordelais, wearing his uniform as a sergeant of infantry, seated in the stands. True, he was a forward, and uncapped, but Muhr was in no position to be choosy and Laffitte was willing, a five time champion of France with his club and had not eaten too heartily at lunch.
He was still removing his uniform when the frantic Franquenelle arrived, explaining that he had missed the train from Paris Saint-Lazare. The game was about to begin, so France kicked off with 14 men as Franquenelle changed hurriedly before running on for his debut. Vareilles would arrive a little later with his own tale of transport woe - believing he had time to lunch as he changed trains at Melun, he had seen his connection steam off and leave him on the platform.
Yet France began well with half-backs Guillaume Laterrade of Tarbes and his debutant partner Georges Peyrottou of Perigueux, a provincial partnership in a team that remained Paris-dominated even though club hegemony was now firmly fixed further south, prompting a fast and tricky three-quarter line. Laterrade claimed an opening try and as Henri Garcia wrote in his La Fabuleuse Histoire du Rugby, "There was delirium. The crowd found its voice and there was electricity and a sense of possibility in the air."
The Scots were to claim that the atmosphere got to referee Arthur Jones, a man whose distinctions included captaining England on an Ashes cricket tour and being reckoned by crusty critic E.H.D Sewell as the best referee he could remember. Sandy Thorburn's Scottish history records that one of the Scots that day would have differed from Sewell's rating, recalling that Jones consistently held them to the rules while allowing the French free range.
Scotland equalised with a try by veteran forward John McCallum, but fell behind again when wing Pierre Faillot - a national sprint champion known as L'Autobus and a giant by French standards at six feet and 14 stone, who always played in woollen gloves, blasted through for a debut try which made it 8-5. The delirium grew as Peyrottou scored to make it 11-5, but then came the Scottish comeback.
Half-back and captain Pat Munro went over for a try, then wing James Pearson, a Watsonian who had a miserable afternoon trying to contain the much bigger Faillot, compensated for his defensive misfortunes with a drop-goal - then worth four points - to give the Scots the lead at 12-11.
Faillot, though, was not to be denied, blasting through the Scottish centres then Pearson to restore France's lead close enough to the posts for forward Paul Descamps to land his second conversion.
With France leading 16-12, the Scots launched a remorseless assault that finally saw forward Cecil Abercrombie blast his way over, but fullback Borth Tod, a master baker from Gala playing his only game for Scotland, was unable to land the conversion and France still led by a point.
In the final minute Scotland winger Walter Sutherland broke through and seemed certain to score with Faillot, who had crossed from his own wing, the only hope of stopping him. Garcia records: "Sutherland was almost at the line and Faillot plunged towards the Scot driven by the breath of 8,000 Frenchmen. A moment of doubt. But no, incredibly Sutherland was forced to the ground short of the line and had dropped the ball. France had won! The first victory, insane happiness, with everyone forgetting the mud, snow and ice."
Faillot was carried from the field by the crowd along with France's captain Marcel Communeau and centre Gaston Lane, with Communeau a survivor of the first French team of 1906.
L'Auto magazine raised a subscription to present medals to the victorious XV. Among the first subscribers was Vareilles, who did not play for France again. For Scotland it launched a miserable year as they lost all four matches for the first time.
France, though, would not win again against any opponent until 1920. When Scotland returned to Paris in 1913 they won 21-3 and Faillot distinguished himself in a new role, driving the referee - who had pleased the crowd as much as Mr Jones had pleased the Scots in 1911 - to safety through an angry mob. The crowd scenes led Scotland to refuse to play France in 1914 and the First World War meant the fixture was not resumed by 1920.
The war was also to claim the lives of five players from each side including Descamps, Lane, Sutherland and Abercrombie - the 1913 Scotland XV was to lose nine to the conflict. Scotland's captain Pat Munro, however, survived to become president of the SRU for 1939-40 and a victim of the Second World War, dying on Home Guard duty in London in 1942.
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