Sixteen years. Sixteen long years. By 1980, this was how long the England rugby team had waited to taste victory in Paris, a period of time that had seen England lose six matches and draw one against their French rivals. However, it was not just the French that England had a problem with. Since their last outright Five Nations title win in 1963, the state of the English rugby team had fluctuated between poor and embarrassing.
Come the start of the new decade, English rugby badly needed to leave the doldrums behind. The 1970s in particular had been a decade of woe, as various national teams managed to lose 26 out of 40 Five Nations matches on their way to five wooden spoons and as the 1980 championship loomed, English rugby had many unwanted millstones hanging around its neck; no outright title since 1963 and the last Triple Crown in 1960; winless in Wales since 1963; no win in Paris since 1964; only one victory over Wales since the year of their last title; and just two wins in eight against Ireland. Things could only get better.
The bricks were at least in place for a brighter 1980. Captained by Bill Beaumont, the squad prepared thoroughly, firstly in a trial match, and then in a training session at Bisham Abbey before the opening fixture against Ireland. "I think we've got all the basics right," stated Beaumont, prior to the Ireland match, "and I can say that it's the best prepared England side I've ever been associated with". Beaumont attributed the extra preparation and planning to the sterling work put in by chairman of selectors Budge Rogers, and along with the coach Mike Davis, England began to lay the foundations for what was to follow.
Davis' one match in charge so far had been the narrow 10-9 loss to New Zealand in November 1979, a dour affair that at least gave the new coach a chance to assess the job in front of him. Luckily England did possess a strong pack, with Beaumont surrounded by the likes of Fran Cotton, Peter Wheeler, Tony Neary, John Scott and the returning Roger Uttley, but Davis felt that he needed to get more out of the backs during the forthcoming Five Nations campaign. "Each of the backs has individual and special qualities, and we hope to make use of every facet in their game," declared Davis. Music to the ears of many English rugby fans who had been starved of any kind of excitement in recent times.
Two men hoping to play a full part in the evolution of the England team were wingers Mike Slemen and John Carleton. Carleton had impressed during the England trial, scoring two tries and, like centre Nick Preston, he had gained his first taste of Test rugby in Davis' first match in charge against New Zealand. One troublesome position was fly-half; the recalled John Horton would be the third different player to occupy the number 10 shirt in the last three Tests, his first appearance since 1978, and making him and scrum-half Steve Smith part of England's 17th different half-back pairing in the last 28 matches.
Despite the improved build-up and the noises of optimism emanating from the England camp, Ireland arrived at Twickenham as slight favourites, the Daily Mirror's Mike Bowen predicting a win for the visitors: "Even allowing for England's unpredictability, I take Ireland to win by a narrow margin". In fairness, Ireland had won three of their last four at Twickenham, and had beaten Australia twice in the previous summer, with England's recent record hardly suggesting that they were about to win their first championship opening match since 1977. But England's pack dominated proceedings, the front five, and lock Nigel Horton in particular - who was only playing due to a rib injury suffered by Maurice Colclough - excelling to give England a 24-9 win, and the ideal start to their season.
"We have got to lift our game to yet another level against France in Paris," insisted Beaumont, who was well aware that winning in the Parc des Princes would be a different matter entirely. The French had drawn a series in New Zealand in the previous summer and had high hopes entering the Five Nations. But a crushing 18-9 defeat in Cardiff in their opening match pricked the French balloon, and all of a sudden the French press had their knives sharpened. From talk of the championship, the French national team was thrown into chaos.
The totally ineffective French pack felt the full force of the panic, both locks (Francis Haget and Jean-Francois Marchal) dropped, with Yves Duhart handed his first cap, and number 8 Alain Maleig moved to partner him. Maleig's position was taken by 20-year-old Manuel Carpentier, a decision that some felt was a little desperate, seeing as the youngster had only played two months of first-class rugby. Philippe Dintrans returned as hooker, but the luckiest man to survive the cut was loose-head prop Patrick Salas. Salas had been savaged by Wales' Graham Price, not totally surprising as the Frenchman had been shuffled around the pack in his four international matches, Salas selected as a number 8, a lock, and a prop already in his short career at the top level.
In direct opposition to Salas would be Phil Blakeway, whose journey to his first cap against Ireland was bumpier than most. Two years previously Blakeway had played for Gloucestershire against South Wales Police and broke his neck during the match, but was unaware of the severity of his injury and just three days later took the field against Cornwall. "After the first scrum in the county game I was in agony and only kept going by holding my neck rigid," recalled Blakeway, adding "I went to hospital the next day and they told me I was lucky not to have been paralysed".
Blakeway only returned to rugby in 1979, fitting in his involvement in the sport around his job as a wholesale greengrocer. His job commitments led to him missing the start of the 79/80 season, so Blakeway's selection did raise a few eyebrows, but his impressive display in the trial match swung things in his favour. His fine performance in his debut match against Ireland justified the selectors faith in him, and the prospect of lining up in opposition to the under-fire Salas boosted England's chances in Paris.
Not everything was rosy in the England garden, however. Centre Tony Bond was stretchered off during the Ireland match with a compound fracture to his right leg, resulting in a first cap for Clive Woodward. Logic followed that Woodward would replace Bond for the Paris match, but less certain was the return of lock Maurice Colclough. Originally selected for the Ireland game, Colclough was forced to withdraw, with Nigel Horton's immense display muddying the waters. Colclough was eventually given the nod, playing for his French club Angoulême on the Sunday, and then flying 700 miles to pass a fitness test during a training session at Coventry on the Monday.
England's confidence was so high that they were able to name their team for Paris just three days after the Ireland win, and although there was a scare when John Scott injured an ankle whilst playing for Cardiff - Trevor Cheeseman put on standby - the England camp was a happy one as they trained at Coventry on the Monday, and at Sarcelles on the Friday before the big match.
Conversely, such was the disarray in the French ranks, that for the first time since the end of the Second World War, they named their team just four days before the match. As well as the changes up front, Jean-Luc Averous returned on the wing, and on the eve of the match another new boy was added to the ranks, when full back Jean-Michel Aguirre was declared unfit, leading to a debut for Serge Gabernet. The apparent distrust between the French setup and their media rumbled on though, coach Jean Desclaux conducting a behind-closed-doors training session, much to the annoyance of the already riled French journalists.
The England plan was simple, outlined by Beaumont before the kick-off: "The French backs always pose a special threat because of their speed and flair, so we've basically got to do the same job up front as we managed against the Irish and stop France getting the ball". Overall England had a half a stone advantage per man on the French pack, and with the French in a relatively muddled frame of mind, Colclough's assertion that "This French team is ready to be taken," was a concise and accurate assessment of the opportunity staring England in the face.
Mike Bowen was again slightly less optimistic about England's chances, writing on the morning of the match that "England have the ability to do so today, but in his own backyard, I fear the cockerel will be crowing tonight". Unfortunately for English fans, Bowen's prediction seemed to be spot-on in the early stages, as France's explosive start swamped the visitors and threatened to quash any hopes held going into the match. French skipper Jean-Pierre Rives scored a try after just three minutes, although Caussade's conversion hit the post, as England struggled for the opening ten minutes to repel the irrepressible French.
Gradually England gained a foothold in the match, as their forwards began to exert some pressure on their French counterparts. After 15 minutes, Dusty Hare's penalty reduced the deficit, although a moment of indiscipline from Colclough led to a Caussade penalty and a 7-3 lead for France. It was about as good is it would get for the home team.
By half-time England had surged into a 14-7 lead, with first international tries for both Preston and Carleton. Horton was at the heart of the first try, his high kick resulting in England turning over possession in France's 22, Horton and Woodward then combining to send Preston through, the centre brushing off two weak French tackles to level the scores. Unsurprisingly, England's strong scrum played a part in Carleton's try, Scott driving off the base before Beaumont drove forwards and fed Smith. Smith's clever dummy sent Carleton away, giving England the lead and leaving the French a mountain to climb.
One incident would emphasise England's forwards dominance that day; with Roger Uttley off the field receiving six stitches for a head wound, the pack of seven held firm at a scrum by the French posts, and after good work by Carleton and Woodward, Horton was able to send over a drop goal, to put England 14-7 ahead at the interval. England were winning all the key battles, especially up front, The Times' John Reed later commenting that "Their unity, dedication and support of each other in tight and loose mauling and rucking wore down the French forwards, who had the mobility but not the sheer strength and tank-like momentum of the English pack".
Behind this solid pack, the half-back pairing of Smith and Horton flourished, Horton again dropping a goal just after half-time to ease England 17-7 in front, his display bringing plaudits in numerous newspaper reports. For now, England were in dream land, so comfortable it was unreal. But just as thoughts of breaking the Paris hoodoo started to enter the minds of English supporters, back came France, and in a frantic closing period England's world briefly threatened to crash down around them.
The last ten minutes mirrored the first ten, England pegged back and at times desperately hanging on. For once England lost a scrum against the head, unfortunately under their own posts, leading to a try scored by Averous which was easily converted by Caussade. What had looked like a cruise for England now developed into a nervy conclusion, France attacking relentlessly in a breathtaking climax. England stood firm though, thwarting a dangerous looking French attack down their right wing, and as the final whistle blew, England's players could celebrate a 17-13 victory that felt a lot closer than it should have been.
England's players certainly deserved the praise that came their way; flankers Neary and Uttley were constantly harrying half-backs Gallion and Caussade; the front row were immense, leading to Salas and Paparemborde constantly collapsing the scrum; Wheeler's throwing at the lineouts was superb; Beaumont, who left the field nursing a calf injury, was a powerhouse, with Colclough and Scott also dominant; and the half-back pair of Smith and Horton, given a solid platform to work from, combined well and thrived as the French wilted.
"England's doughty forwards ruled the cockerel's roost," wrote Peter West in The Times, highlighting to all the credit due towards England's pack. The French press were naturally less complimentary about the performance of their team, and another loss to Scotland - where the revolving door selection policy resulted in four more changes from the England game - meant that the wooden spoon was very much a possibility as they entered their last match against Ireland. France won, although just one win from four was patently not good enough. The thrilling unknown quantity in the French game is something that makes them so appealing though, and a year later they would bounce back to win a Grand Slam that twelve months earlier would have been thought of as an impossibility.
England's first win at the Parc des Princes confirmed to the team and their supporters that something special was possible with this set of players, and Beaumont and his men would in due course complete the Grand Slam, narrowly beating Wales at Twickenham, before finishing the job at Murrayfield. 1980 would end the years of hurt and disappointment surrounding English rugby, and there can be no doubting what the win in Paris did for the team. It got the 1964 monkey off their backs, gave the players the belief that their first outright championship since 1963 was achievable, and led to that glorious finale of the Grand Slam in Scotland.