Simon Barnes' Rugby World Cup heroes: Christophe Lamaison

I wasn't important enough to cover the match between South Africa and Australia. This was, after all, the heavyweight clash in the semi-finals of the 1999 World Cup. So The Times sent me to the other match. The foregone conclusion. The match that the unimportant sportswriters go to. As a result I got to see the greatest rugby match ever played.

I don't think that's putting it too highly. In terms of excellence, beauty and drama it was all there. It was also a watershed moment in the history of the sport: a match in which the past took on the future and won. Naturally, inevitably, the future regrouped and became the troubled present: but on that blessed day at Twickenham we had what was perhaps the very last day of old-fashioned rugby, in which skill beat physical size.

The match was between France and New Zealand, and the New Zealanders were expected to make this a stroll in the park. It wasn't even going to be close. Hardened observers hoped that the game wouldn't be too one-sided, and so give a poor impression of the sport to the watching world.

It looked as if the hardened observers were right, too. New Zealand were leading 24-10 and were about ready to shift gear and drive off into the distance. Their enormous winger Jonah Lomu had already scored two tries, seeming to jog in at his ease with a few French defenders hanging off him, in the manner of a poacher festooned with game.

"Lamaison was never a great player, just a very good one. But he had a day of unquestionable greatness." Simon Barnes

There had been one French try, but then you expect that, don't you? A burst of magic from the fly-half, Christophe Lamaison, who had also kicked the conversion and added a penalty. That looked like a bit of decoration, nothing more. So we second-class reporters sat back and waited to write down the names of the New Zealand scorers.

But it didn't work out like that. France suddenly scored 33 points without reply. It was as if a wizard had passed by the ground and bewitched the French team, giving them temporary ownership of super-powers: speed, evasiveness, indomitablity.

And Lamaison was at the heart of it. He shouldn't even have been playing. He should have been on the bench waiting and hoping for an opportunity to come on as a centre, though he wasn't regarded over-highly in that department, being a touch short of pace.

But there was an injury to Thomas Castaignede and at the last minute Lamaison had to deputise at fly-half. And having scored his pretty try he grasped hold of his moment with inexorable force, reignited France and set them off on the trail that led to victory.

He kicked two drop-goals to get France moving forward, and then added two penalties. Suddenly New Zealand looked a little bit less bloody certain of themselves. That's when the French broke loose.

In the film The Commitments, the trumpet-player Joey the Lips tells the young saxophonist Dean where he went wrong. Dean says he wants to improve himself: "That's commendable, Brother Dean. But what you were playing was not soul. Soul solos are part of the song. They have corners. You were spiralling. That's jazz."

In New Zealand rugby, the creative play has corners. It's part of the overall strategy. But the French were spiralling. Christian Dominici ran onto a box-kick from Fabien Galthe, gathered it at full pace and ran through. Richard Dourthe gathered a perfectly weighted cross-kick from Lamaison and scored. Philippe Bernat-Sallas added one more try for luck --- and meanwhile Lamaison kicked all the conversions.

He didn't miss a kick all night. His dead-eyed accuracy and calmness in the heart of the all this spiralling business was what kept the French going. They didn't just decorate the occasion: they finished the job. They were brilliant but they were also ruthless. They were creative but they were also utterly certain.

Thus France ran out at 43-31 winners; New Zealand had a last-minute consolation effort, but there was never any suggestion that they were going to get back into contention. And that was it for France, alas. Australia thumped them 35-12 in the final.

So you can dismiss the French effort as immaterial, if you value sport only in the hard currency of victory. But there's another way of valuing sport, not necessarily inferior. France had given us the perfect rugby match, and one of a kind we would never see again, at least not at the highest level of the game.

Lomu had been seen as a freak, as a monster. In fact he was a prophet. He was the man who showed the way rugby would be played forever afterwards. You could line up Lomu in a modern line of backs in rugby union, and while you'd be impressed by his physique and his demeanour, you wouldn't be remotely surprised to see him there. They're all like that these days.

Rugby union has become a game in which physical size and coached strategies win the big matches. Creativity and spontaneity are old hat. And while the titanic clashes of the 21st century certainly have their points, they are mostly unleavened by wit and style.

The spectacle of rugby union has become for the most part a comparatively limited range of skills. Perhaps one day this will change and a new form of dramatic attacking play will evolve. Or perhaps it will become still more regimented: still more about set-plays and hits.

But that semi-final was the day when the wave of spiralling rugby broke and rolled back, and Lamaison was at the heart of it all. He ended up with 37 caps and scored 380 points, which was for a while a French record. He was also a major player in France's grand-slam sides of 1997 and 1998.

He was never a great player, in the sense of long-term consistency: just a very good one. But he had a day of unquestionable greatness when he made possible the greatest rugby union match ever played. That's glory enough for a sporting lifetime.