“They each had their little pill in front of their plates for the meal before the match. The [All] Blacks realised that their opponents, unrecognisable from the previous week, were loaded.”
The words of Jacques Mobet, the French rugby union team doctor during the 1980s. In what sounds more of a description relatable to Gerard Butler and his men in the film 300, this was instead a reference to the French squad against New Zealand, 1986.
In a match that was coined Battle of Nantes; it was a bruising battle. There’s a distant line in rugby, one that pushes the limits of contact in sport. This game knew no boundaries, though; the French were uncontrollable animals. All Blacks captain, Wayne “Buck” Shelford, lost four teeth and had his scrotum torn 20 minutes into the game.
The No. 8’s response? Get stitched up, and carry on playing until unable to after being knocked unconscious in the second-half. It was a relentless 80 minutes of humans against allegedly pumped machines. The machines won 16-3.
France had recently lost to the All Blacks 19-7 in Toulouse, and reportedly the men to grace the field in Nantes were of different nature. They were different players, not fearful or in awe of the All Blacks but instead out to hurt the best side in the world.
Investigative journalist, Pierre Ballester, spoke to New Zealand radio times of the French players and has suggested some of the team were on amphetamines:
“When I came out of the tunnel and I saw them, I looked into the eyes of many of the players as I walked past them, and their eyes did not say that they were going into a game against the All Blacks,”
Amphetamines in French rugby were no strangers. During the 1970s, a match between Fleurance and Marmande had to be called off as the referee reportedly became scared at the fact players were frothing at the mouth. The nature of the sport still being regarded as ‘unprofessional’ at the time perhaps allowed for less scrutiny, and therefore an easier way for players to abuse such substances.
Nevertheless, the Battle of Nantes was a black mark on the game, and one that still remains unproven to date.
A game which embedded unthinkable fear amongst New Zealand legends.