Morning all. I was deeply saddened to hear of the death of French rugby legend Christophe Dominici yesterday. He was a wonderful player who, with his performance in the semifinal of the 1999 World Cup semifinal against the All Blacks, had a big influence on my lifelong love of rugby. So if you don’t mind, today I’d like to take a quick trip down memory lane in his honour.
I was 10 years old when the 1999 Rugby World Cup was taking place. I was already a keen (if limited) rugby player fighting to cement my place in the school first XV, and was inspired by the tournament for two reasons. Firstly, the coach at my school – Jesse Coulson – had been selected as a player. He was the USA’s third-choice scrum half (and I don’t think he made it onto the pitch), but still, that was pretty exciting. Secondly Dan Luger, who had attended my school and made a guest appearance at a training session the previous year, was part of the England squad as a regular fixture on the left wing.
I remember the tournament vividly. Jonah Lomu, four years on from scoring four incredible tries against England in the 1995 quarterfinal, arrived as the sport’s first genuine superstar. The hype and excitement surrounding his talent was matched only by the intrigue regarding his bizarre mini frontal quiff (which, I have just realized, is not dissimilar to the Brazilian Ronaldo’s barnet at the 2002 World Cup … perhaps it was the fashion for global sporting superstars at the turn of the century?). His face was all over the country, on billboards and buses.
In the group stage, the 22-year-old impudently shrugged off Jerry Guscott – my favourite player at the time – on the way to scoring a brilliant individual try against England at Twickenham, one of a record eight five-pointers he registered in the tournament. His All Blacks, with an all-star team featuring the likes of Andrew Mehrtens, Tana Umaga, Christian Cullen and Jeff Wilson, cruised through to the semifinals – where they faced an unfancied French side – and seemed destined to win the title.
Enter Dominici. After 20 minutes of tentative sparring, the diminutive younger winger suddenly burst through the line, brilliantly sidestepping a couple of despairing Kiwi tacklers before being brought down just a couple of metres short of the line. The French recycled the ball quickly and Christophe Lamaison went in under the posts for a 10-6 lead. Game on.
Angered, Lomu then scored a couple of sensational solo tries to restore order and open up a 14-point lead for the All Blacks just after half time. The French, who had earned the dreaded wooden spoon for finishing last at the 1999 Five Nations just a few months prior, were surely beaten.
Enter Dominici again. After a couple of Lamaison drop goals had reduced the deficit, a speculative chip over the top was met by the the flying winger who gathered superbly before escaping a couple of tackles to touch down and give France the lead. The grey-haired Philippe Bernat-Salles then scored another breakaway try for Les Blues and out of nothing, the mighty All Blacks were beaten. The French could not replicate their brilliant form in the final against Australia, but they had already won the support of rugby fans the world over for their flamboyant, care-free style and never-say-die attitude. That semifinal was the day that I became hooked on rugby. I simply couldn’t believe that France had managed to win what had seemed like such a lost cause with just half an hour to go. To this day I still have a soft spot for them and always enjoy their success (as long as it doesn’t come at the expense of England).
Dominici’s inspired performance against the All Blacks might have been the first time he announced himself on the world stage, but it was just the start of a glittering career. At club level, the Toulon-born winger won five domestic titles with Stade Francais and finished runner up in two Heineken Cup finals in the early noughties. With France, he won the Six Nations four times – including two Grand Slams – and appeared at three world cups. All told, he played 67 times for his country and scored 25 tries, enough to put him seventh on France’s all-time list.
For me, however, he will always be remembered as the fleet-footed, blonde-haired speed merchant who sidestepped Cullen with a cheeky grin and turned that semifinal on its head. For that reason, it is fitting that the current French team, at the time of his passing, is perhaps the strongest it has been since Dominici’s retirement in 2007. Blessed with brilliant young footballers like Antoine Dupont, Romain Ntamack (son of Dominici’s former teammate Emile), Gael Fickou, Virimi Vakatawa and Teddy Thomas, they were the stars of the 2020 Six Nations and would surely have won the Grand Slam had they not self-sabotaged with a needless red card at Murrayfield. With a World Cup on French soil approaching in 2023, things are looking bright for Les Blues.
The circumstances surrounding Dominici’s death are still shrouded in mystery: he apparently fell from a disused Paris building. Accident or not, what a terribly sad way for France rugby to lose a legend. Along with South Africa great Joost van der Westhuizen, who died from motor neurone disease in 2017, and Lomu himself who passed from a heart attack two years before, the sport has lost three of the stars of that 1999 tournament. But if they play rugby up there, what a what back-line that would be.
Right, that’s all from me today. As I was writing this, the news has broken about Diego Maradona’s death. What a crappy week for sport.
See you all on Friday.
— What are your memories of Dominici? Let me know in the comments section below! —