My favourite game: France v New Zealand, 1999 Rugby World Cup | Sport

In these dark days the unscripted drama of live sport feels more important than ever. The second World Cup semi-final at Twickenham in 1999 seems like yesterday to me even though Émile Ntamack, France’s left-wing on that autumn day, now watches his son play for their country. No one in the stadium will ever forget it. At the end, and I kid you not, I turned round from my seat in the East stand press box and grown men were actually weeping.

Context is all. This wasn’t just an astonishing spectacle. It came, like so many French performances in World Cups, completely out of the blue. The All Blacks were so far ahead of everyone it wasn’t true. Jonah Lomu was in his pomp and their backline, with Christian Cullen, Tana Umaga and Jeff Wilson operating outside Andrew Mehrtens, were cutting other teams to shreds.

Earlier in the competition New Zealand cold-bloodedly scored 101 points against Italy in Huddersfield. They had been beaten in the final four years ago when Nelson Mandela was South Africa’s 16th man and they were going to make no mistakes this time.

France were their usual flaky but often brilliant selves and nobody was giving them a hope. This view was shared by the Guardian’s newly appointed rugby correspondent. “I’ll do Australia against South Africa, should be pretty good, and you can watch the All Blacks beat France,” the sage-like Robert Kitson told me during the week. (He may not have used those actual words but you have to allow me a little one-upmanship and smugness for this feature).

And so it came to pass. Rob watched the thrilling spectacle of Matt Burke kicking eight penalties against the holders while I, bless him, went to Twickenham 24 hours later to witness what Paul Simon might have called “a day of miracles and wonders”. My only regret is that the following weekend Australia beat a flat France, perhaps shattered after their semi-final efforts , in the dullest final ever.

All was going to the script as New Zealand ran up a 24-10 lead. A black tidal wave threatened to submerge France. Lomu powered through the tackles of Xavier Garbajosa, Philippe Bernat-Salles and Fabien Galthié as if they were so much dead wood in an autumn gale. The full-back Garbajosa later admitted that he had deliberately dived the wrong way to avoid the express train that was Lomu and who could blame him? Poor France, their Six Nations wooden spoon earlier that year was going to be followed by a humiliation witnessed by millions.

And then the rugby world was turned upside down. France scored 33 points without reply. Their fly-half Christophe Lamaison, only in the side because Thomas Castaignède was injured, kicked two drop-goals and two penalties. France were within touching distance. Fear gripped the All Blacks. Surely they couldn’t muck this one up? We were on the edge of our seats.

The scrum-half Galthie, now France’s head coach, kicked a teasing up-and-under down the left touchline. Christophe Dominici thundered after it and raced round Mehrtens to score. France were ahead. Pandemonium broke out. The French pack rumbled forwards.

The French players do a lap of honour after their victory.

The French players do a lap of honour after their victory. Photograph: Tom Jenkins/the Guardian

By this time Lamaison could do nothing wrong. His chip bounced into the arms of Richard Dourthe, who scored another. With five minutes to go, though, New Zealand still had shots to fire. Mehrtens flung a pass to Umaga but the wing could not hold it and Lamaison kicked the ball from the French 22. Olivier Magne hacked it on into the New Zealand half and Bernat-Salles won the race with Wilson to plunge over.

There was no way back despite Wilson’s last-minute reply. Never before had the All Blacks conceded so many points in a World Cup game. I’ve been lucky enough to see two other remarkable World Cup games live, Fiji against Wales at Nantes in 2007 and Japan beating South Africa in Brighton in 2015 are up there, but nothing matches this.

When I got my breath back I phoned the Guardian sports desk. “I’ve just seen the greatest game in the history of the World Cup,” I said. “Yes, we know,” came the weary reply. (I was forgetting that everyone was watching on telly.) “That’s why we’ve cleared the front page.” Ah. Happy days.

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