France v England in the quarter-finals of the 1991 Rugby World Cup wasn’t really rugby: it was an 80-minute history play, a piece of pure malevolent theatre.
Some might say that’s over the top. They might be right but they can always ask Will Carling, the England captain that fevered day. I did, via email.
“The atmosphere was incredible right from the anthems,” he wrote. “The Parc de Princes created a far more gladiatorial atmosphere than Stade de France, for some reason.”
It was the old concrete bowl, which trapped and amplified not just the French bands and Swing Low but the thuds and smacks of the field.
“You understood early on it was going to be very physical, violent,” Carling wrote. “But that was the challenge. To stay calm but fight like hell and for some reason I loved it and I think most of the team did too.”
England faced the men they’d beaten for a grand slam a few months before. Revenge was in the air. Nigel Heslop kicked high to Serge Blanco and hit the full-back late. Punches flew. The crowd bayed for blood.
Carling again. “When [the referee David] Bishop called me over after Heslop was knocked out, I was watching the French – and they were shaking! So the word back to the team was to really go for them.”
England’s pack leader was Brian Moore. The Pitbull. He went for them. Maul by maul, ruck by ruck, the forwards fought it out.
That pack was at its peak. As Carling points out, a No 8 as good as Dean Richards couldn’t get a game. “Iron” Mike Teague had Peter Winterbottom and Mick “the Munch” Skinner on the flanks for company.
“It was one of many violent games over those years,” Carling wrote. “Probably the most tense though, as it was a knockout World Cup game.”
Second half, 10-6 England, scrum, five from the English line. Marc Cécillon went blind and met with Skinner’s destiny, a tackle of monumental drive. England won the ball.
“We all sensed the reaction,” Carling wrote. “The sense of relief and pride were amazing. The looks on the French forwards’ faces.”
Injury time, 13-10 England, the Parc alive with crackling hate. The scrum-half Richard Hill kicked high, to Jean-Baptiste Lafond.
“I remember it bizarrely well,” Carling wrote. “I remember thinking, ‘Wherever it goes, whoever catches it, just grab them and the ball and don’t let go for anything!’ I got to Lafond. I felt our forwards arrive and thought, ‘Let’s get the bloody ball off him, then.’”
Carling touched it down, Winterbottom went berserk with joy. Jonathan Webb converted: 19-10.
“It was far from pretty or skilful” but it was the try that gave Carling “the greatest rush of relief and satisfaction! I distinctly remember thinking, ‘We have not been knocked out, we have not been humiliated, we have managed to ride the storm!’”
They rode it again at Murrayfield a week later, then lost against Australia in the final at Twickenham.
Now, Paris ’91 exists on YouTube, a modern version of the VHS tapes Skinner flogged off the back of it, The Tackle from endless angles.
Tom English’s book The Grudge, about Scotland v England 1990, chronicles the myths around that game. But it also tells moving stories of friendship. I asked Carling how England got on with the French.
“We didn’t talk after games, not only due to language issues. There was not much love lost! [But] we ended up in the same bar in South Africa after the third-place play-off in ’95. And for the first time we started drinking, and had a brilliant night! I became good friends with Philippe Sella, Laurent Cabannes, Philippe St André and Thierry Lacroix.”
Repeat those names. Repeat Teague, Skinner and Dooley. They don’t make ’em like that any more. They can’t.