A vaincre sans peril, on triomphe sans gloire. Roughly translated: To win without peril (is) to triumph without glory. There was a time when French rugby teams lived or died by that maxim but not, it seems, any more.
French rugby, at its best, is wonderful. To be in Twickenham in 1991 was a privilege. When Serge Blanco set off from his own in-goal area, with about 27 players in front of him, Blanco was, as ever, the epitome of the counter-attacking French fullback.
Early in this Grand Slam shoot-out, Simon Hodgkinson had pushed a penalty from near the left touchline across the posts, and the French scrumhalf Pierre Berbizier caught the ball in the in-goal area. About 999 times out of a 1000, any player in his boots would have touched the ball down. Instead, Blanco called for the ball as he ran behind Berbizier from left to right.
Blanco left his own in-goal area, linking with winger Jean-Baptiste Lafond, who in turn passed it on to Philippe Sella. Running out of options, Sella came infield, and worked a switch with fellow centre Didier Camberabero.
He beat Hodgkinson, chipped Rory Underwood and gathered, and before being dumped by Will Carling and a posse of Englishmen, either heard a call from Philippe Saint-André or saw him out of the corner of his eye and cross-kicked infield, in total taking out about seven English players drawn to the ball like moths to a light or something out of an under-6s game.
Saint-André gathered on the bounce and scored under the posts. Sella wheeled away in triumph.
It's possibly the best try ever scored at Twickenham, from over 100 metres. Saint-André instigated something similar in 1994, in the second Test of their two-Test tour of New Zealand. France had won the first Test in Christchurch, and were behind entering the last minute. Saint-André gathered a diagonal kick from Steven Bachop behind him inside the 22.
With 28 players in front of him, Saint-André turned and set off, beating three flailing All Blacks. From the ruck, hooker Jean-Michel Gonzalez stepped in at scrumhalf and fed Christophe Deylaud, who passed to Abdel Benazzi. A dummy from the backrower took out one player before he linked with Emile Ntamack, who came inside to work a switch with flanker Laurent Cabannes (what a player), who in turn worked a switch with Deylaud. He stepped one man, passed infield to scrumhalf Guy Accoceberry, who perhaps could have scored but gave that honour to fullback Jean-Luc Sadourny, arriving at pace.
The so-called “Try from the end of the Earth” sealed an historic 2-0 series win, in true French style.
Lord, rugby would have been such a duller, Anglo-Saxon dominated game without the French. They provided variety, despite decades of being ostracised. They did more than anyone to bring Italy, Argentina, Romania and Georgia to that closeted Anglo-Saxon elite.
It's been the same in World Cups. France have been the best country never to win the World Cup by some distance. They've illuminated virtually every edition with the performance of the tournament, in the game of the tournament.
There was the semi-final win over Australia in Sydney’s Concord Oval in the inaugural 1987 tournament, completed with a late try by Blanco which involved 11 French players in a bewildering array of kicks, balls won on the ground, passes and offloads.
The French were desperately unlucky not to win the 1995 semi-final over hosts South Africa in Durban, when Benazzi had a try wrongly disallowed. There was the stunning 1999 semi-final comeback win over the All Blacks at Twickenham and the equally memorable, very French coup over the same opponents in the 2007 quarter-final in Cardiff, before the madcap campaign of four years ago, when losing to Tonga, turning up for the quarter-finals against England and being robbed, in many ways, in the final against New Zealand.
If only they had won a World Cup playing French rugby. That would have been some legacy. Of course, the inspired, glorious wins of 1987, ’99 and ’07 were followed, a week later, by limp defeats. So French. But such glories seem not of their make-up anymore.
It's incredible to behold Saint-André and Blanco, along with Patrick Lagisquet – a French back three from the ages – preside over such stodgy rugby over the last while. There's little licence to counter-attack or thrill. There's something innately wrong about the South African Scott Spedding wearing Blanco's shirt. So much of their game is based on brute strength and forward power.
Coaching is a tough gig, and seems to be a bad health risk for all of them, but particularly so for Heyneke Meyer and Saint-André. Tortured souls the pair of them in their coach's box, like caged lions. Saint-André is an immensely likeable and charming man, but the result seems to matter above all else, as if he cares too much. He long since stopped preaching what he practised.
None of this is to say France couldn't beat Ireland in a one-off World Cup match, as they've done in all three previous World Cup meetings. They have that forward power. They have Ireland's answer to Paul O'Connell in the remarkable Thierry Dusautoir. Freddy Michalak remains old school, a product of Toulouse, who can play heads-up rugby.
There are also real signs that Wesley Fofana, an astonishing attacking talent hitherto kept under wraps with Les Bleus, is developing a real understanding with the maverick Michalak, who himself is well capable of kicking eight out of eight on his day. And, no less than the reborn Louis Picamoles, Mathieu Bastareaud looks leaner and fitter.
Along with their line speed, their defensive shape has also impressed. Their body language suggests a way more unified, spirited group than four years ago. They remain dangerous. Maybe we expect too much, but they just ain’t the French we used to know and love. What a pity.