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4 days ago
France, mooted as a possible addition to the Tri Nations tournament, was expected to be cannon fodder for Australia in their rugby league international in Toulouse on Monday.
But things didn't go according to script.
France - a side made up of postmen, council workers and wine makers - gave the world champions one heck of a fright, leading 16-6 midway through the opening half and closing to within four points with five minutes remaining.
They lost 52-30 but only after a stirring performance.
The star was second-rower Jamal Fakir, a 22-year-old who never batted an eyelid against the world's best forward pack.
"Physically they were as strong as us," Kangaroos captain Darren Lockyer said after his side's victory at Stade Ernest-Wallon.
"They probably just need to play a few more internationals. I'm sure after a few years they would be a handful among the top three nations."
Lockyer eventually proved France's undoing.
But not before he was turned into a speedbump in the 17th minute by a rampaging Fakir, who stampeded over the top of the Australian five-eighth to make the score 12-6 in France's favour.
Five-eighth Maxime Greseque scored three minutes later before Lockyer, returning after four weeks on the sideline with a rib injury, inspired Australia's comeback.
Matt Cooper, Craig Fitzgibbon, Brent Tate and Lockyer himself scored before halftime and the Kangaroos led 28-16.
But there was bite left in the French.
They closed to within four points - at 34-30 - when centre Damien Couturier crossed in the 67th minute.
If not for two Greseque conversions which bounced off the post, the scores would have been level.
Then fullback Renaud Guigue cleaned up a loose ball and passed to Fakir, who had daylight in front and players in support.
He juggled the ball and it hit the deck.
Three plays later Petero Civoniceva scrambled over after an incisive Craig Wing burst and the game was as good as over.
"I was nervous," said Lockyer, who was rested by coach Wayne Bennett in the 53rd minute.
"I probably never, ever thought we would get beaten. At 34-30 they had open field and dropped the ball - that was probably a turning point."
The signs were good for the French game.
In 2006 local side UTC will enter the English Super League.
Officials are optimistic it could signal the re-birth of rugby league in this country and provide the basis for Les Bleus to enter the Tri Nations, a move that has already been endorsed by Bennett.
"I think obviously the Super League is going to be a huge thing...that's what they badly need," Bennett said.
"They'll be able to keep players in the game, they'll get recognition and they'll be playing at a very high level.
"That's an important step and the second part is, if one players decides he doesn't want to play there, he should look at an Australian club.
"I think there has to be some system in place. We have two or three kids here, ring up 10 clubs and see who wants to take them.
"I just think perhaps they should be pushing more of their players to NRL clubs, let them come over there and be available for the French team.
"I am sure if someone rang us and told us they have a good player worth taking, I'm sure we'd take them."
Fakir would make a good start.
"I thought they played a lot different to any Australian or English side I have seen play in the last five or six years and I enjoyed that," Bennett said.
"Some of them they got lovely skills, support play and little short balls - things we have got away from at home."
FRANCE 30 (F Zitter 2 A Fellous J Fakir M Greseque D Couturier tries. M Greseque 3 goals). defeated by AUSTRALIA 52 (C Fitzgibbon 2 J Ryles M Cooper B Tate D Lockyer T Carroll P Civoniceva B Kennedy tries. D Lockyer 4 C Fitzgibbon 4 goals)
At Stade Ernest Wellon (Toulouse). Referee: K Kirkpatrick.