When Paul Willemse was sent off with a little over 12 minutes remaining of France’s crucial Six Nations clash with Wales, few would have backed Les Bleus to win.
The hosts were trailing by 10 points at Stade de France and needed victory to prevent Wales winning the Grand Slam and to prolong their Championship chase into a final match against Scotland.
What happened next has been well documented. Aided by some Welsh indiscipline, France found a way to score two tries in the final five minutes to win a pulsating encounter and break Welsh hearts as well as their resolve.
But, where does the great French escape rank among rugby’s biggest comebacks?
From a test team that trailed 27-0 at half-time, and won, to the northern hemisphere nation who failed to beat the All Blacks after building a 19-0 first-half advantage, we look at some of the more unbelievable victories in men’s and women’s internationals.
Fiji 41-38 Tonga, Pacific Nations Cup — 19 June, 2010
Tonga had already lost a close encounter against Pacific Nations Cup hosts Samoa when they returned to Apia Park to face Fiji in June, 2010. It took the Sea Eagles just two minutes to stamp their authority on the match as Vungakoto Lilo crossed the try line, and Kurt Morath converted. Lilo bagged his second try 10 minutes later, before Alipate Fatafehi and Sione Kalamafoni both crossed the whitewash. Morath added the extras each time to give Tonga a 28-0 lead with just 25 minutes on the clock.
Fiji rallied before the break as a Taniela Rawaqa penalty was followed by a Malakai Bakaniceva try that the former converted. However, a Morath penalty five minutes before half-time gave Tonga a 31-10 lead at the break.
The two teams exchanged converted tries in the opening 10 minutes of the second half. But, the Fijians took control after Rawaqa struck a penalty with around 25 minutes remaining, and then Tongan lock Akameta Fe’ao was sin-binned. Kelemedi Bola, Dominiko Waqaniburotu and Seko Kalou all scored tries in the final quarter, with Rawaqa converting all three to give his side a narrow 41-38 victory.
England 26-13 France, Women’s Six Nations — 4 February, 2017
Matches between England and France are always hotly contested, and that was no different on the opening weekend of Women’s Six Nations 2017. With Rugby World Cup 2017 just six months away, both teams were keen to lay down a marker, and for 40 minutes, it looked as though the French might just do that at Twickenham.
Shannon Izar scored an unconverted try in the fourth minute, and after Emily Scarratt missed a penalty, Christelle Le Duff stretched the French lead with three points. Gaelle Mignot then crossed the whitewash for a second unconverted try, to give France a 13-0 lead at half-time. France looked on course to repeat their 19-0 away victory of 1999, but the hosts had other ideas. A Scarratt penalty chipped into the deficit, before she converted Danielle Waterman’s try. Three subsequent Scarratt penalties edged England into a 19-13 lead, before she converted a late Amy Wilson-Hardy try to put the seal on an impressive comeback victory.
Ireland 22-24 New Zealand — 24 November, 2013
Ireland had never beaten the All Blacks when they arrived in Dublin in November, 2013. They had come close on several occasions, but never as close without winning as on this winter’s day at the Aviva Stadium. The hosts stormed into a 19-0 lead as Conor Murray, Rory Best and Rob Kearney all crossed the whitewash within 20 minutes — and Johnny Sexton converted the first two. New Zealand hit back with a converted Julian Savea try but a Sexton penalty stretched Ireland’s half-time lead to 22-7.
Ireland looked to be on course for an historic victory, but the All Blacks stormed back in the second period. Aaron Cruden slotted a penalty before he converted a 64th-minute Ben Franks try to cut New Zealand’s deficit to five points. Sexton then crucially missed a penalty with six minutes remaining, and that gave the visitors hope.
Ryan Crotty scored a try with time up, to level the scores and give Cruden the chance to win the match from the kicking tee. His initial attempt sailed wide, but the Irish players had rushed the kick too early. Cruden made no mistake with the retake, as he dissected the posts to seal victory by the tightest of margins.
South Africa 36-35 Australia, Emirates Airline Edinburgh Sevens — 29 May, 2011
The World Rugby Sevens Series is often a frenetic, frantic affair but few matches contained such a points swing as the final of the Emirates Airline Edinburgh Sevens 2011. Australia appeared to be cantering to the silverware as a Bernard Foley brace and try from Jono Lance gave them a 21-7 half-time lead.
When Henry Vanderglas crossed the whitewash seconds after the restart, Australia had a 28-7 advantage. However, South Africa had come from two scores down in their semi-final victory over Wales and they were soon back in contention. Franke Horne and Bernado Botha scored tries to cut their deficit to nine points, but it all looked to be in vain when Ed Jenkins scored for Australia.
However, Steven Hunt — who scored South Africa’s only first-half try — scored twice to complete his hat-trick and give his hope. South Africa needed to regather the kick-off, something they did just as the full-time hooter sounded, and S’bura Sithole set off on a mazy run through the Australian defence to secure a barely believable victory.
France 43-31 New Zealand, RWC 1999 — 31 October, 1999
New Zealand had looked good in qualifying for the semi-finals of Rugby World Cup 1999, scoring four tries to beat Scotland in the last eight. And a team that wanted to right the disappointments of the previous two tournaments started well at Twickenham. The All Blacks built a 17-10 half-time lead, as Jonah Lomu cancelled out a Christophe Lamaison try and Andrew Mehrtens added 12 points with the boot.
Mehrtens converted a second Lomu score five minutes into the second half as the All Blacks took a 14-point lead, and a firm grip on proceedings. France had been in free-scoring form themselves, but few would have predicted what came next. Lamaison kept the scoreboard ticking over for Les Bleus with a pair of drop goals, and two subsequent penalties brought his team within just two points. France then took the lead when Christophe Dominici touched down with more than a quarter of the match remaining.
Lamaison converted that score, as he did when Richard Dourthe and Philippe Bernat-Salles both scored from kicks into space from the fly-half. It meant France had turned a 14-point deficit into a 41-24 lead in less than half an hour. Jeff Wilson added a late consolation try for New Zealand, but it was too little too late for the All Blacks.
Ireland Women XV 24-22 Japan — 3 June, 2017
Ireland began their preparation for their home Rugby World Cup in earnest in June, 2017 with the first of back-to-back matches against Japan. And the hosts began the uncapped international at UCD Bowl in good style as tries from Claire Molloy and Paula Fitzpatrick, the latter of which was converted by Nora Stapleton, gave them a 12-0 lead.
Japan, though, grew into the game and scored four tries either side of half-time to build a commanding 22-12 lead with just 10 minutes remaining. But, there was still time for another turnaround and tries from Hannah Tyrrell and Molloy levelled the scores in Dublin. Molloy’s powerful second score gave Tyrrell the opportunity to win the match for Ireland, and complete a thrilling comeback, something the full-back did with a sweetly struck conversion.
Option 2⃣ Wales 32-31 England (1999)— BBC ScrumV (@BBCScrumV) April 4, 2020
🏉 One of Wales’ truly great Five Nations wins. A superb late Scott Gibbs try followed by a Neil Jenkins conversion secured victory by a single point and denied England the Grand Slam at Wembley Stadium pic.twitter.com/os2w8Duhzk
Wales 32-31 England, Five Nations — 11 April, 1999
Bidding to win the last Five Nations Grand Slam, in the competition’s final match before Italy made it a six-team tournament a year later, England started brightly at Wembley. The famous stadium in London served as Wales’ home while the Millennium Stadium was being built. England scored first-half tries through Dan Luger, Steve Hanley and Richard Hill, while Johnny Wilkinson added three penalties. But the boot of Neil Jenkins kept Wales in touch at the break — 25-18.
A Shane Howarth try, and excellent touchline conversion from Jenkins, levelled the scores at 25-25 early in the second half. However, from then on in the second period, it was England who dominated. Two further Wilkinson penalties edged his side into a six-point lead and within touching distance of the Grand Slam. England turned down an opportunity to go for the posts late in the game, but still led by six points in injury time when Jenkins kicked a penalty deep into opposition territory. Wales put only three forwards into the lineout, and that decision gave them the numbers in midfield that Scott Quinnell capitalised on as his pop pass found Scott Gibbs, who crashed through the English defence and danced over the line. Jenkins stroked over a cool conversion to edge Wales into the lead, and after a missed drop-goal attempt from Mike Catt, an unlikely victory was theirs.
Argentina 34-45 Australia, Rugby Championship — 6 October, 2018
Argentina were hoping to complete a Rugby Championship double over Australia when the Wallabies arrived in Salta for the final match of the 2018 tournament. For at least 40 minutes, it looked as though the Pumas would pull it off. Pablo Matera and Emiliano Boffelli each scored converted tries in the first five minutes, before Michael Hooper got the visitors on the board. But any hope of an Australian comeback looked a long shot as Matias Orlando and Santiago Gonzalez Iglesias crossed the whitewash, and the latter added a penalty.
It meant the hosts began the second period with a 31-7 lead. However, within 13 minutes the Wallabies had scored converted tries through Izack Rodda, Israel Folau and Dane Haylett-Petty to draw them within just three points. Iglesias added a second penalty to stretch Argentina’s lead to six points, but the momentum was now with Australia. In the final 16 minutes of the match, David Pocock and Haylett-Petty scored the Wallabies’ fifth and sixth tries to seal the win. Bernard Foley, who converted all six of Australia’s tries, added a late penalty to add a gloss to the victory.
Chile 34-35 Uruguay, South America Rugby Championship — 25 August, 2007
Chile had not tasted victory against their continental rivals for five years when Uruguay visited the Prince of Wales Country Club in Santiago 13 years ago. But it looked as though Los Cóndores were cantering towards victory when they opened up a 27-0 half-time lead.
However, Uruguay weren’t to be discounted and scored three second-half tries, two of which were converted by Emiliano Caffera, who also notched three penalties. Chile, though, had added a converted score of their own to give them a 34-28 advantage with less than a minute of the match remaining. The clock was ticking for Los Teros, but with time running out one last counter attack ended with the try that Caffera converted to snatch victory. No test team has ever overturned a half-time deficit as big as the 27 points Uruguay recovered from in Santiago.
USA 20-18 Canada, Women’s Rugby Super Series — 10 July, 2019
Canada headed into the match against their great rivals in San Diego on the back of an impressive win over France. The USA, by contrast, had opened the Women’s Rugby Super Series with back-to-back defeats against England and New Zealand. And this match initially went to form as Canada built a 15-3 first-half lead, thanks to a brace of tries from Olivia DeMerchant and the boot of Sophie De Goede.
The USA got back into the match with an Emily Henrich try, but another De Goede penalty gave the visitors an 18-8 advantage at the break. The hosts remained 10 points adrift until the final quarter of the match, when Alex Kelter converted her own score to pull her side within three points of the Canadians. And with less than nine minutes remaining at the Chula Vista Training Center Kris Thomas crossed the whitewash to give the USA a memorable victory.