Le Crunch as the French now call it, England V France as we stoically refer to it, or the most fearsome game of the Five Nations as I remember it. And fearsome it was, not from a frightened I will get hurt point of view, but fearsome from a 'these guys could humiliate us' point of view.
France in my mind were the most dangerous side in world rugby, when in the mood and when given the opportunity, they could attack you from anywhere, with such speed, such skill, such brilliance, that you just ran around open-mouthed trying to catch the bastards!
I won my first cap against the French, in Paris at the Parc des Princes, against Philippe Sella - then the best centre in the world. It was meant to be just the one cap, as the guy who played my position was injured, and we were due to get a right hammering. Well we lost, but by one point and it was just the most amazing experience. Wearing an England shirt, a police escort to the ground, a noise and intensity in the stadium that I have never experienced and a speed and power on the pitch that was brutal.
That stadium was special, it was compact and close to the pitch, very reminiscent of a Coliseum (or is that me just pretending to be in Gladiator again!) and it produced an atmosphere far more exhilarating than the bigger Stade de France. I remember standing on that pitch before one of our clashes with Peter Winterbottom, a player who was rated by New Zealanders, South Africans and all the Home Unions, a man of few words (a Yorkshire man!) and he turned to me and said:
"You know Will; this is the place to win, the place."
And during the early 90s England V France was to become some game! I do not know why or how it started, I think it was our audacity to win a game or two that upset the French, but they became so emotional about the game it was incredible.
In the late 90s when Laurent Cabannes, a great French player, came to play at Harlequins and we talked about the games and he revealed just how deeply we had got under their skin. In 1992 he said, their forwards were fighting and crying in the changing room before the game!
I remember facing them, waiting to turn right down the tunnel and out onto the pitch, and as always the French sent their forwards to the front of the line to eyeball me, and on this occasion, as I looked at them, trying to show no emotion (very English) I noticed some were bleeding already, all were sweating profusely and many were shaking.
We ran out and lined up for the anthems, sung ours and as we waited for theirs (which I love by the way) I leant forward to look at them past the referee and touch judges. Philippe Sella, captain, was first in their line, waiting proudly for their anthem, and next to him the three front row players, arms around each other, sobbing their hearts out... I straightened up and leant over to Rob Andrew who was next to me:
"Look at them."
He leant forward and saw what I had seen.
"Bloody hell, this should be good..."
They had two sent off that day, and being honest it could have been a lot more. They were violent games, vicious and ferocious, and yet some of the best games that I played in. When it really gets going that is when you learn about yourself and you learn about your teammates. And when you have gone through those experiences and watched each other's backs, that is when you become a tight team and that is when the moments in the changing room afterwards are priceless.
We were far from saints during that period - we realised how talented they were and how dangerous they could be if allowed to play to their strengths - so we calculated that getting them wound up and fighting stopped them from fulfilling their potential. I remember Brian Moore bouncing around like some oxygen starved baboon after one training session, stating:
"Got a brilliant line for Press Conference, bloody brilliant it is, bloody brilliant."
Eventually we coaxed it out of him.
"I'm going to say playing the French is like playing 15 Eric Cantonas," (he had just launched himself at the fan in the stands.
Off he skipped to the press conference chuntering his line to himself...
But he got under their skins, as did all the forwards. And when I look back, I do think 'bloody hell, our pack was immense'. They knew the game would be violent, they knew they had to play right on the edge and they also knew that discipline was absolutely critical - and their discipline was superb, despite everything they faced.
And let's be honest, my leadership was very special too. One moment encapsulates it very well I think. Half-time in the Quarter Final of the 1991 World Cup, game is very close, crowd in the Parc des Princes are nearly hysterical. It has been and continues to be the most violent game I have played in and was also the best. I am talking to the team, and no one is listening - nothing new! So I have to try to get their attention.
"Guys, we have to score next. If we do, you know what they are like, they will crack, start arguing with each other and then they are finished. We have to score next. If they do, we are in the shit, finished, their confidence will rocket, they will start to run everything and we are out of the World Cup."
Silence and even some nodding!
Five minutes into the second half, the French winger Lafond scores in the corner, the stadium erupts, the French players go crazy, and we are standing under the posts. I call them in for a really close huddle as the noise is just unreal. Just as I am about to speak, Mike Teague whispers in my ear:
"Another fucking pearl of wisdom skipper?"
As I said - special!
But on an almost serious note, there are still aspects of that period against the French that this England team can use on Saturday. The French thought of us as cold, mechanical, basic and one dimensional. We tried not to disappoint them. I wanted us to be cold, completely in control, so that having hit them as hard as we could in tackles, scrums, breakdowns, we never showed emotion, just looked them in the eye with the understanding that there was plenty more to come.
After all, the technical rugby preparation and all the tactics are taken out of that period, I honestly believe that it was our control, our intensity, our discipline that completely fazed them for all those games. They could not deal with that control, from our tactical kicking strategy to close them down, to our defensive patterns, all were aimed at closing them down, allowing them no space, no counter attack opportunities etc. etc.
All underpinned by our discipline.
And on Saturday, England will need plenty of the same. The French play is very different, far more relaxed and cosmopolitan, so the edge is not the same. Their potential is though, as shown against Australia, and hence England must not underestimate them for one second and I mean one second, you don't need to remind me that taking your eyes of Blanco under his own posts can lead to one of the greatest tries Twickenham has seen!
They come with no pressure, no expectation, and that is when they are at their most dangerous. If England take to the field with the right attitude, then they have the ability to win, if they lose focus at any time, then the French could start smiling.Suggest a correction