Members of the France and New Zealand teams of 1906 pose together for a photo

Members of the France and New Zealand teams of 1906 pose together for a photo
Photo: FFR

100 years of French Test rugby: part two

In the second and final part of his celebration of 100 years of Test rugby in France, Chris Thau looks back at their very first international match, against the mighty New Zealand tourists of 1905/06.

New Zealand’s tour of Great Britain had brought them 31 wins and one defeat at the hands of Wales in a match that entered rugby folklore.

After the Welsh test, the All Blacks played four more matches in Wales, which they won by narrow margins, due to both their exhaustion at the end of a merciless tour schedule as well as the quality of the Welsh opposition.

After dispatching Glamorgan County 9-0, the All Blacks struggled in their remaining three fixtures against the big three Welsh clubs. They beat Newport 6-3, defeated Cardiff 8-6 after a baffling error of the Cardiff captain Percy Bush, and won the last match of the tour 4-3 against the formidable Swansea.

The journey to France

After their final game in Wales the New Zealand team left Swansea the same evening, with enthusiastic crowds cheering their progress by rail towards London. On the morning of 31 December, after a few hours sleep at the Paddington Hotel in London, they left for France, via Folkestone, the first New Zealand team to set foot on French soil. Met at Boulogne by the Stade Français liaison man, Edmond Etling, the visitors were delighted to be welcomed by a cheering crowd of about 200 well-wishers at Gare du Nord. They settled in Hotel de Saint Petersburg in time for dinner, the last of 1905.

Although exhausted by the British tour, the New Zealanders were looking forward to the French match, as Tour Manager George Dixon recorded in his diary: “there was a novelty in the thought of a match against French players that was most agreeable to our boys”.

They are .. keenly enthusiastic, and it can only be a question of time for them to develop into very respectable exponents of rugby

New Zealand Tour Manager George Dixon on French prospects after the 1906 game against the All Blacks

Indeed by 1906 French rugby was in a mature state, with the game having established strong outlets throughout the country, after many years of Parisian dominance. For the first time the French selectors had gathered the best players from Bordeaux to Toulouse and from Lyons to Paris, as well as two foreign nationals, Allan Muhr an American forward from Racing CF and William Hay Crichton, an English full back from Le Havre, with two other Le Havre regulars, Lewis and Wood on the bench.

Crichton, a wool merchant from Lancaster and captain of Le Havre was an outstanding player. He was described by Dixon as the best tackler they met on tour, whose dashing style was a treat to watch and who has taken the fancy of the French people being described as “The first back in All France”.  “He saved at least 10 tries with his brave tackling” noted the magazine L’Auto in the post match report.

The match itself

The rain that continued all New Year’s day affected the play. “The game was not fast and the players were handicapped by the greasiness of the ball,” wrote the Paris Daily Mail. “In point of physique, New Zealand did not compare as favorably with their opponents as had been anticipated. The French XV were well-built and with a little more training their athletic appearance would have been even finer than it was. In many cases they carried superfluous flesh, which contrasted forcibly with the wiriness and almost giant stature of the ‘All Blacks’, whose superior stamina served them in good stead on the sticky ground.”

“ If this game was not distinguished by first class football, it was at any rate a fine sporting game, played in the best possible spirit, and witnessed by as impartial and enthusiastic crowd of spectators as the heart of a man could desire,” wrote Dixon.

“The Frenchmen have a lot to learn yet regarding the finer phases of the game. In the matter of passing, particularly, their ideas are very rudimentary, but there can be no mistake regarding the vigour which they infuse into their play. They are moreover keenly enthusiastic, and it can only be a question of time for them to develop into very respectable exponents of rugby…It is not necessary to enter into a detailed description of the match. Our boys scored freely, getting 10 tries altogether, four of which were converted, while France obtained a try in the first spell and another in the second, Pujol converting the latter amidst great enthusiasm,” he added.

And the Paris Daily Mail added: “The most conspicuous feature of the game was, of course, the wonderful passing and combination of the ‘All Blacks’, whose technique and finesse periodically aroused the spectators to a high pitch of enthusiasm. Absence of cohesion on the part of the Frenchmen at times was painfully in evidence and they would have played a much better game had they been more conversant with each other.”

Dixon had particularly good words for the fitness and the understanding of the laws of Louis Dedet, the French referee who “gave an excellent interpretation of the rules. Moreover, he was invariably with the game, which was a point to admire.”

International recognition

After he exchanged jerseys with Amand the French captain at the end of the match, the All Black skipper Gallagher remarked: “They are fine sportsmen these Frenchmen. I am surprised to find they show such a wonderful comprehension of the game, which is greater than that evinced by very many of the British teams we have met”.

In a prophetic mood the Paris Daily Mail concluded: “The game should have a marked effect upon French football from an international standpoint. On paper, at least, France may now challenge even an All England XV and henceforward the French Rugby game is entitled to the greatest respect from British critics.”

Indeed, only a few weeks later on March 22, 1906 France, captained by G. Lane of Racing entertained England, the first ever match against one of the Home Unions. In 1910 France joined the International Championship, as the Five Nations was called at the time, but contacts with the Home Unions were severed in the 1930s and France channeled its energy into continental rugby, with the direct result of the emergence of Germany, Italy and Romania as powers to be reckoned with.

Regular international contacts with the Home Unions resumed immediately after the war, and after matches against the Welsh, Irish, and the British Empire Forces, France entertained the legendary Kiwis, the New Zealand armed forces selection on their farewell European tour, 50 years after their predecessors, the first All Blacks started the ball rolling.

France 8 New Zealand 38
Parc des Princes , January 1st, 1906

France WH Crichton (Havre AC), G.Lane (Racing CF), H.Levee (Racing CF), P.Sagot (Stade Francaise), A Pujol (SOE Toulouse/ Stade Francaise), H.Amand (Stade Francaise-Captain), H.Lacassagne (Stade Bordelais UC), J.Dufourcq (Stade Bordelais UC), N.Cessieux (FC Lyon), M.Communeau (Stade Francaise), G.Jerome (Stade Francaise), AH Muhr (Racing CF), A.Branlat (Racing CF), P.Dedeyn (Racing CF), SA Verges (Stade Francaise).

Scorers: Tries: Cessieux 1, Jerome 1, Con Pujol 1

New Zealand EE Booth (Otago), ET Harper Canterbury), WJ Wallace (Wellington), HL Abbott (Taranaki), SJ Hunter (Taranaki), HJ Mynott (Taranaki), JW Stead (Southland), D. Gallagher (Auckland-Captain), W Cunningham (Auckland), F Newton (Canterbury), FT Glasgow (Taranaki), GA Tyler (Auckland), WHC Mackrell (Auckland)

Scorers: Tries: Wallace 3, Abbott 2, Hunter 2, Harper 2, Glasgow Cons: Wallace 2, Tyler, Abbott

Referee L.Dedet (France)

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