The first World Cup in rugby history took place in 1987 in New Zealand. The French XV reaches the very first final of this global competition to face the formidable All Blacks team. This match will remain legendary despite France's defeat. And at the heart of the legend, a certain Éric Champ.
In April 2023, he was one of the first ten players to join the Toulon club's Hall of Fame. During his playing career, Éric Champ had 42 caps, including two World Cups (1987, 1991), and was captain of the Toulon Rugby Club and the French XV.
Le Point: After the performances of Chile against Japan and Uruguay against France, are you surprised by the level of these small rugby nations?
Éric Champ: The World Cup is still incredible. The memory I keep in New Zealand from the 1987 World Cup is seeing the Fijians arrive with the blazer, the shirt and instead of pants, the sarong, I found that extraordinary. The magic of the World Cup is seeing champions and in the middle, different profiles, Little Thumbs who will thrill you. And even more so with the public now, it's just incredible. I like this sport !
Today, rugby has developed all over the world. There are no more small teams. If these are teams that are in the World Cup, it’s because they are strong. It's very complicated to qualify, you have to fight to get there. We need to stop believing that it’s easy to score 60 points during a World Cup.
You, a former third row, who participated in the first final in the history of the World Cup, what do you think of our third rows?
First of all, I'm very happy for Anthony Jelonch, he was able to return to competition. It’s incredible, this comeback. I see a resemblance with the third line we had at the time during the 1987 World Cup. Grégory Alldritt, like Laurent Rodriguez, is a powerful player who constantly advances and snatches the balls. François Cros makes huge tackles, he puts his head and arms in without thinking (laughs), like Dominique Erbani. In all humility, for the movement and the link with the backs and the fronts, with this modest mobility that I had, I would look more like Charles Ollivon.
We feel touched by the return of Anthony Jelonch. What does this return after six months without any matches mean to you? This can be risky, right?
Anthony is important because he was one of the pioneers during the rebirth of the XV of France. Galthié's outstretched hand for this boy, I find it exceptional and it sends an important message for the group. This means: You have been on the journey with me, but I am not going to let you go. There will be injuries, difficult times, but I will be there, I will not forget.
And when you ask the players to give their body on the pitch, it's much easier. The player does it for the team, but also for his coach. The Gabin Villière case was the same. We could have buried him after his multiple injuries, but no, Galthié has not forgotten him. The spirit of this group is tremendous.
Were you disappointed with this New Zealand team? You who played matches against them, can we talk about the worst generation in history?
Yes and no, it is difficult to make comparisons. We have an incredible French XV and above the New Zealanders, we are not used to it. But when you see players like Beauden Barrett, the New Zealand fullback, kicking an incredible number of kicks, it's disappointing. He is an arrow with remarkable wingmen and instead of using them, he uses the foot…
The Blacks remain a diligent team that masters individual and collective technique. But they are missing some exceptional players, with a surprisingly weak third line, both physically and in terms of tenacity. This is going to be their big problem. Like South Africa. They have a great team, but they don't have a goalscorer and you can't expect, apart from a miracle, to go far in the competition without a great goalscorer.
After France's first two matches in the World Cup, are you worried about the future of the competition?
Even if I am worried about the level of certain players in the match against Uruguay (because the more we progress in the competition, the fewer tackles we will have to miss, the matches will be decided on details, we will have to be very precise, that can played on a ball), I don't see who can stop us from winning the title. We have the best generation in the history of the French XV with incredible talents.
I tell you that, but we can miss it, we can be ready psychologically and physically, but in rugby, you never know. It comes down to details. There are rules today that are so strict. That's another debate. Obviously I'm all for protecting the players, but when players are hitting each other head to head without doing it on purpose, in the heat of the moment, and you have to play with 14 players because of a red card, the match takes necessarily a new twist. Against a well-prepared team, it's over. The biggest enemy of the XV of France is the XV of France. Obviously.