The game started with defences on top with a monsterous hit by the impressive Djamel Fakir on Richard Mathers epitomising the resolve both sides would show during the match. But after 6 minutes Fakir was penalised by New Zealand referee Glenn Black for interference which set the field position for Eorl Crabtree to provide a suspisciously forward looking pass to Chris Thorman who impressively stepped the French fullback Renaud Guigue to register the first try of the game. Thorman duly added the extras to his score. England led 6 â€“ 0.|
On 14 minutes an England attack broke down spectacularly when an ill judged Robinson pass was intercepted by Villeneuve centre JĂ©rĂ´me Hermet who broke down field. It should have resulted in a try but the mismatch in pace between the two sets of threequarters was to be the Fench sideâ€™s undoing on this and other occasions as a committed chase back by Calderwood and Mathers impressively thwarted the French break. The rest of the England side were all offside at the next play and the French chose to run the resultant penalty. Their courage was rewarded when a good drive and quick play by Fakir gave the opportunity for Les Catalans hooker David Berthezene to take JJB, Charles and Crabtree over the line with him as he burrowed over to score next to the uprights. A simple conversion for Laurent Frayssinous levelled the scores and the French sideâ€™s confidence grew.
It wasnâ€™t long before the French were in again. Young Villeneuve winger Olivier Charles found the overlap from a great ball from Gregory Mounis but with Mathers coming across to effect the cover tackle he chose to kick ahead. In back play Calderwood was seen to pull back a chaser and the French chose again to run the resultant penalty. For the second time their confidence was to be rewarded as the ball was moved quickly from left to right by Rinaldi and Mounis to allow Freddy Zitter to score in the corner. The difficult conversion drifted across the face of the posts but France were 10 â€“ 6 to the good.
A few minutes later and Zitter looked to be in at the corner again as the French realised that their National League 2 man was more than a match for the hapless Ade Gardner. This time the referee ruled out the score as Zitterâ€™s leg touched the whitewash a fraction of a second before getting the ball down.
From the restart Mathers knocked on in front of his own posts and after Charles went close on the French left a crossfield kick found Gardner all at sea and a goal line drop out resulted. By this stage Berthezene was cutting the England defence open from dummy half and after a characteristic run Jamie Jones-Buchannan was guilty of interference and Frayssionous kicked the simple penalty to take the score to 12 â€“ 6. The French were in complete control and it was difficult to believe that England coach Karl Harrison wasnâ€™t mightily relieved that his charges only conceded the two.
On 34 minutes England got the break they needed. Paul Wood reefed the ball in a two man tackle but the offence was not seen and England put some pressure on the French line for the first time in a while. A clever kick got a repeat set and a wonderful Fijian by Jamie Jones-Buchannan gave Stuart Reardon the opportunity to score in the corner but Olivier Charlesâ€™s tackle jolted the ball free as Reardon dived over the line.
As half time neared a superb kick from substitute Maxime Greseque and a good chase had England pinned back right on their line and the French were able to go in at oranges with a deserved lead.
Could England regroup? Could the French kick on for a historic win? The second half was eagerly awaited by the spartan Headingley crowd.
The second half started as the first had ended with the French pressuring the England line but when Renaud Gigue fluffed a simple kick 15 metres out from his goal line on 48 minutes the match changed. In the next set Luke Robinson was able to weave his way over the try line with Thormanâ€™s conversion bringing the scores level.
The score seemed to take a lot out of the French side who began to look mentally and physically tired and England had the upper hand from hereon in. A well weighted kick by Thorman on 55 minutes allowed Jamie Jones Buchannan to get a deserved score with the conversion putting England 18-12 ahead.
With England camped in the French half the next 10 minutes saw a series of bombed opportunities with a knock on by Frayssinous when clear (operating in the centres following the withdrawal of Damian Coutourier with a broken hand) was bracketed by knock-ons by Robinson and Mathers close to the French line.
On 68 minutes a rare French incursion into England territory following a Lynch knock on should have resulted in at least a penalty as Greseque was clearly pulled back by Sykes when chasing his own kick but the officials failed to see the infringement and Franceâ€™s chances of getting anything from the match disappeared.
For the last 10 minutes the French repeatedly forced the pass in their own half in a desperate bid to break away but England remained in control. Then on 78 minutes Sykes opted to go to the blind side on the last tackle and Crabtree got the score in the corner that finally made the game safe. Thorman was unable to add the extras to leave a slightly misleading final score of England 22 â€“ 12.
In the end this was probably honours even. England got the win but the French side playing in the middle of their off season, coming from a far less intense competition and utilising a number of part time players could probably feel proud of their performance. Ultimately it was probably a lack of conditioning and real cutting edge in the threequarters that cost the French the game. If nothing else the result should show us all that Les Catalans will be a tricky outfit home or away next season.
The biggest disappointment was the lamentable crowd of less than 3,000. From an average attendance of over 17,000 it looks as if 15,000 or so Rhinos supporters suddenly found something else to do on a Sunday evening and couldnâ€™t be bothered to support the game. That was a shame as the endeavour of both sides deserved more.