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Michael Lynagh's greatest running performance

Former international cricket umpire Dickie Bird, with Australian Rugby Union player Michael Lynagh. (AP Photo/Stefan Rousseau)
Roar Guru
6th October, 2016
19
1025 Reads

I was recently watching the 1987 Rugby World Cup quarter-final between Australia and Ireland, which is sometimes regarded as containing Michael Lynagh’s greatest kicking performance at international Test level.

Watching this Test reminded me that years earlier, after hearing the news that Michael Lynagh had suffered a sudden and unexpected stroke, I had written a Roar article listing ‘Michael Lynagh’s 10 greatest moments‘.

Regrettably I forgot to mention his 1987 performance against Ireland, which gets overshadowed by his 1991 performance against Ireland.

I also listed Lynagh’s 1993 performance in the second Test against France as his greatest moment, despite having never seen it.

I was caught in a bind. Rugby experts who I trust maintain that it was his greatest ever performance, and it seemed as though writing a tribute to Lynagh would be bereft if I omitted it.

I also wanted to be original, and not list the 1991 World Cup quarter-final as number one, so I listed that performance at number one.

Thankfully a fellow Roarer, atawaidrive – a true scholar and gentleman – graciously sent me a copy of this Test that he had taped way back in 1993, and I am extremely thankful for that!

I promised myself that having finally watched that performance by Michael Lynagh, I would one day write a Roar article describing that wonderful effort against the French from 1993.

So here it is: Michael Lynagh’s greatest running performance.

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But before we get to Lynagh…

This Test marked a milestone for French centre Philippe Sella, who in playing his 94th Test became the most capped rugby player in history, surpassing Serge Blanco.

Prior to the Test a nice moment occurred. The French and Australian teams had agreed that prior to the Test, they would allow Sella to run onto the field before both sides do, without telling him!

As the teams lined-up to take the field – and after Lynagh congratulated Sella – the French captain and second-rower Olivier Roumat told Sella to lead both sides out by running onto the field. Sella ran onto the field by himself, completely unaware that both sides were not following him.

The crowd roared and cheered, celebrating their great centre, before Sella, looking back, noticed that he was alone on the field.

It was a classy moment.

Five minutes into the Test and Australia’s first points came from a penalty that was given after two phases, one in which Lynagh threw a cut-out to Little, who easily got over the advantage line, and then in the following phase Horan got over the advantage line, and a penalty was called.

An interesting move that Lynagh ran two or three times in the Test involved was a switch pass that called upon Jason Little to run back into the 9-10 channel. Lynagh and Horan would run diagonally, but when Lynagh got the ball Little would be almost behind Lynagh.

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It reminded me a little of the ‘switch play’ that had worked so well for Lynagh against Ireland in 1991 – Stellenbosch (abbreviated to ‘S’) – where Lynagh would pass to Horan, and Campese would come in on the switch and suck in the forwards.

However, in this Test when Little was given the ball in this play he always made it beyond the advantage line given how close Lynagh was playing to the French defence.

Watching this Test, and in particular the first half, it didn’t take me long to realise where the French thought they had the advantage over Australia – Benazzi at the back of the line-out.

Five times in the first half the French tried to throw the ball to Benazzi, with success!

The first significant French attacking play in the first half came after Benazzi won some good line-out ball. The ball came from French halfback Heuber to Sella, who shrugged Horan and Little off. To Little’s credit, he immediately ran back to tackle Jean-Luc Sadourny in cover defence after the play had progressed about 30 metres downfield.

“Clearly they’re going to the back of their line-out, where their strength is,” said Chris Handy.

After a wonderful tactical kick from Roebuck, that forced French winger Saint-Andre to take the ball over the try line, Australia had five-metre scrum, Lynagh passed to Horan on a switch and Horan powered over the gain line through the 9-10 channel.

Lynagh then took a quick tap following a penalty (opting not to go for points) and ran straight into French traffic. You could tell he’s playing with explicit instructions to run the ball.

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The second time the French looked threatening in the first half it came from a barn-storming run from Banazzi.

The French called a five-man line-out and Handy called it on commentary, “And Benaazi, the number seven at the back, the likely receiver. Very strong in the air…”

Benazzi ran backwards, took the ball from the line-out, and gained about 10 metres on a powerful run.

France were less than 10 metres from the try line, but the French eightman Cécillon knocked on in the following phase from a short offload from halfback Heuber.

Australia’s first try came following a powerful Garrick Morgan run. The ball came back to Australia from a ruck, and with Lynagh and Campese standing in place to run the blindside, Roebuck was the first receiver on the openside. Roebuck went through a gap, large enough to drive a truck through, and scored under the posts.

Thierry Lacroix kicked a penalty in the 40th minute, and Australia went into the half-time break with a 13-3 lead.

The most pleasing aspect of Lynagh’s first-half performance was that not once were Tim Horan and Jason Little caught behind the advantage line when Lynagh offloaded the ball to them.

Constantly they were able to make headway, either through taking the crash-ball or by beating their opposite numbers, with no French backrow to bother them.

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However, while Lynagh’s play in the first half was excellent in terms of the opportunities he provided for Horan and Little, it’s really in the second half when Lynagh started to tear the French apart by attacking the 9-10 channel.

Lynagh started the second half in scintillating fashion.

The first time Lynagh touched the ball he was just inside the Australian 22. Halfback Slattery received clean possession from a Wallaby line-out and the ball came to Lynagh.

Lynagh ran hard and straight, sweeping past the French 10 Penaud, and having evaded number 8 Marc Cécillon trying to come across in cover from the line-out, Lynagh then ricocheted off an attempted tackle from French halfback Heuber, sending Heuber bouncing off and landing on his backside.

Lynagh’s run wasn’t finished! He almost gained ground into French territory, having run about 15 metres beyond the advantage line, before offloading to Jason Little in support. Little was tackled about 10 metres into French territory.

From the ensuing ruck the ball came back to Lynagh, who scooted a kick into the French 22, about 15 metres from the try line.

Australia had almost gone the length of the field in two phases!

Chris Handy seemed enthused. “He is pumped up!” said Handy. “The goal-kicking responsibility is off his shoulder. He is leading this side. He is varying his play. He’s kicked, he’s run, he’s passed.”

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Shortly after, and still early in the second half, Lynagh kicked a ‘high ball’ from just inside Australia’s territory. The French fullback Jean-Luc Sadourny was unable to field the ball after Horan wonderfully contested the ball.

Australia recovered the ball and from the ensuing ruck Lynagh darted down the blindside. Before he was about to be bundled into touch, he executed a tiny chip-kick into the corner which stayed in play. Damien Smith gave chase and Sadourny was forced to run the ball into touch from cover.

“Lynagh is having a ball!” beamed Handy.

“Yes, a real captain’s knock by the Wallaby fly-half today!” responded Fordham.

Shortly after Australia won a line-out just outside the French 22. The ball came to Lynagh and he opted to run again.

Standing flat and then running horizontally, Lynagh held the ball out as if to palm the ball to Jason Little to execute a scissors pass – the same one that worked well in the first half.

Little ran a decoy. Lynagh then feigned a pass to Horan, before sharply darting off his right foot, and once again slicing through the 9-10 channel.

Lynagh left Philippe Sella clutching thin air as he tried to tackle Lynagh in cover defence.

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Once again, only the French halfback Heuber stood in front of Lynagh and the try line. However, Heuber learned from the first play in the second half, and brought Lynagh down with a little help from Benazzi. Lynagh had gone about 10 metres beyond the advantage line.

“Oh Lynagh! He is having one hell of a game!” exclaimed Fordham.

Midway through the second half a funny moment occurred.

Slattery got bad ball of an Australian line-out win, and the ball came to Lynagh. The French halfback Heuber seemed to know enough of what Lynagh was doing, to run an angle at Lynagh’s outside, attempting to herd him towards the forwards – like Graham Mourie used to do with Mark Ella – and it worked.

Lynagh stepped inside and was caught by Benazzi in a tackle, eliciting a huge sarcastic cheer from the French crowd as if to say, “We got him!”

David Fordham noted that, “We’re seeing a different Michael Lynagh today.” He had this message for Nick Farr-Jones in the Sydney studio:

“So Michael Lynagh playing his 64th Test match. Nick Farr-Jones, back in our Sydney studios today – Noddy slips past you by one Nick – and I know you’ve enjoyed some wonderful moments together – 48 Tests together. But I can tell you, Michael Lynagh is playing like an 18-year-old out there today!”

David Wilson had a terrific Test against the French, and as the commentators remarked, Wilson was able to compete better against the French’s bigger and stronger but perhaps slower backrow, due to Lynagh’s more expansive game.

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“Michael Lynagh has been a new player today, Chris,” beamed David Fordham.

Handy responded, “David, he’s received a heap of ball quickly, goods hands from Slattery, good work by his forwards, and he’s just showing them what he can do. Now he can do this every game…”

Lynagh set up another try with 12 minutes remaining, testing the French fullback Sadourny for the second time in the Test with a ‘high ball’ that landed less than a metre in front of the French try line.

Horan gave chase, and was slightly obstructed by Philippe Sella running back, but Horan was still able to jump and contest for the ball with Sadourny.

Sadourny was unable to catch the ball, and as he came to the ground, he accidentally kicked the ball backwards. Tim Gavin streamed through and got one big hand on the ball to score a try.

What I did not expect to find when watching this Test was Lynagh giving one of his best defensive performances for the Wallabies.

Within the last 15 minutes the French had a five-metre scrum. The French wheeled the scrum slightly and French eightman Marc Cécillon took the ball off the back of the scrum, and Mark Loane-style, commenced a slightly diagonal run, straight at Lynagh.

Lynagh went low and brought him down.

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Into the last ten minutes and Benazzi took a pass from French halfback Heuber and decided to run into the 10-12 channel. He was about five metres from the try line. Lynagh went low and Horan went high.

Lynagh bounced off Benazzi, while Benazzi shrugged off Horan (no mere feat!). Yet Lynagh went back at Benazzi.

Perhaps realising that by going low again, Benazzi would be able to reach out and score, Lynagh latched onto the ball as Benazzi fell over the try line, only to be held up by both Lynagh and especially Australian halfback Peter Slattery, who by sliding his body underneath the ball, kept the ball aloft over the ground.

“That’s terrific play by the two halves of Australia!” called David Fordham.

A few minutes later Marc Cécillon took the ball off the back of a five-metre-scrum and was held back by the collective effort of openside flanker David Wilson and number 10 Michael Lynagh.

I can’t write a report of this Test without briefly touching on a phenomenal tackle Garrick Morgan made on Marc Cécillon in the last five minutes.

The French took a quick tap ball, the ball came to Cecillon, who was about one metre from the try line, when Morgan timed a brutal tackle that dislodged the ball, and sent Cécillon flying backwards.

I wonder if Morgan made that tackle during a more crucial moment in a Test, rather than when a Test had already been won, if this tackle would be better remembered!

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In the final minutes of the Test, Lynagh found himself one-on-one with Abdelatif Benazzi running straight and hard at him. Lynagh went low and brought him down.

“Lynagh again low!” called David Fordham.

“He’s defended superbly today,” responded Chris Handy. “He’s just been everywhere. He’s just played a good ‘captain’s knock’ for the Wallabies here today.”

There’s something quite odd in seeing a five-eighth land so many tackles on a backrow, and yet the backrow can go an entire Test and hardly lay a finger on the five-eighth!

The 24-3 victory marked what was Australia’s then largest victory over France, and their first ever win at the Parc des Princes.

Following the Test, Lynagh was shown holding a trophy aloft over his head. I don’t know, nor did the commentators, what the trophy was for. The series was drawn 1-1.

“I would say it’s for man of the match today,” speculated David Fordham.
“I would think so…” concluded Chris Handy.

Yet incredibly Lynagh didn’t receive the man of the match award! That distinction went to whom? The person who replaced Michael Lynagh with the goal-kicking duties – Marty Roebuck.

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Roebuck played an excellent Test scoring 20 of Australia’s 24 points, including a try. And in a sense it was nice to see Roebuck win the man of the match award, because it was his final Test for Australia. I’m sure Lynagh would be happy to give it to him.

But I was thinking to myself, “You just can’t win!” Lynagh was relieved of the goal-kicking duties for this Test. It was one of only two Tests in which he played for Australia where he scored no points! It freed him up to play one of the best Tests of his international career.

And I believe this counted against him because Roebuck was more noticeable as the person kicking all the goals!

In Michael Lynagh’s wonderful new autobiography Blindsided Bob Dwyer recalls that after the Test the French media asked him, “So, this is a new Michael Lynagh?”
To which Dwyer responded, “No, this is normal. This is his normal capacity.”

I’d like to conclude this article with a story from Blindsided following the 2nd French Test from 1993. Lynagh recalls the following.

We had a great night all together in Paris after the game. We were in one of those typically French places where they serve dinner and then, at about midnight, they move all the tables back and it becomes a nightclub. It was a really chic place to be. There were people like Yannick Noah wherever you looked.

I remember Abdel Benazzi was there that night too – the French flanker. He turned up with a bunch of the other French guys, carrying this great methuselah of champagne. When he saw me, he ran across the club, grabbed me and said, ‘This is the first time I’ve been able to get you all day.’