Stop Wilkinson, and you go a long way to stopping England. That was France’s approach in 2002.
Wilkinson had been top points-scorer in the previous two Six Nations Championships, with an incredible combined total of 167 points.
Even better days were, of course, around the corner for the mercurial fly-half but in Paris, his and England’s Grand Slam dreams turned into another nightmare.
Time and time again England were knocked back by a fired-up French pack, with flanker Serge Betsen leading the charge with a ferocious defensive display.
“We’d played the Six Nations the year before, in 2001, and England smashed France. I wasn’t there but I remember the conversations about how we can challenge ourselves to get revenge,” said Betsen, who won 63 caps in a decade of service for Les Bleus.
“People started talking about Jonny Wilkinson and It was fascinating to see him playing at that level at such a young age. For me, he was one of the most important players for England, at that time he used to carry a lot and make a lot of decisions for England, and it worked for him.
“Bernard Laporte, our manager, told us not to give cheap penalties to England because of Jonny. Discipline was important and defensive organisation was as well for us to be able to challenge England, and do what we can to stop Wilkinson.
“We were fortunate to have David Ellis as defence coach. Coming from rugby league, he brought a lot of structure and organisation around the rucks. All of us wanted to perform well and showcase our ability and with the help of David we managed to do something special.”
GRAND SLAM LESSONS
France raced into a 17-0 lead in Paris, thanks to tries from Gérald Merceron and Imanol Harinordoquy, and then dug in to win 20-15 after England threw everything they had at them.
“As we all say, the game is for 80 minutes. The second half was a little bit difficult and I remember I missed a tackle on Jason Robinson who scored an amazing try,” he recalled.
“But we stayed in the game, we didn’t really fall over despite that, and I think the consistency we’d put in place under Bernard Laporte enabled us to get a very important victory.”
Having already beaten Italy and Wales, France followed up the England win with victory at Murrayfield before rounding off with a thumping 44-5 win against Ireland in which Betsen scored two tries.
Betsen was part of another Grand Slam-winning campaign in 2004, and the London-based 47-year-old hopes that he’ll soon be witnessing France’s 10th in total and first since 2010.
“For a few years, people have talked about how amazing France are and how talented the players are. Hopefully, they can use all the experience from games where they have come up short and convert all these learnings,” he said.
“They have got a lot of potential individually, collectively they need to showcase that to win the Grand Slam. This is what we expect from them and, fingers crossed, it will happen.”