Rugby has come a long way in the last 36 years.
Today, players are paid for doing something they gladly used to do for free, fans watch snippets of games on their phones instead of standing on a terraced bank, and where reserve players were only permitted as injury replacements, one ‘naughty’ nation now uses a stacked 7/1 bench as a tactic.
The evolution of the Rugby World Cup is as good a barometer of rugby’s change as any.
The tentative, baby steps of 1987, when nobody was quite sure if it would take on or not, have morphed into a commercial monolith, to the extent that the upcoming event in France is expected to generate a profit of US$500 million for World Rugby, with all 2.5 million tickets sold, and 600,000 international visitors attending.
By accident of birth, happening to live in the right era, I have devoured every one of the nine World Cups. Despite the passage of time, there are moments that persist in my memory. Not necessarily the best, the worst, the most representative, or the most important, but what the Rugby World Cup has imprinted on me.
Here are these moments; please feel free to add your own memories and observations in the comments below.
Even today, John Kirwan’s solo try against Italy, in the opening match of the 1987 stands out. Not much chop in those days, Italy was expected to offer minimal opposition to the All Blacks, and thus it proved, with the final score blowing out to 70-6.
With so little at stake, it might be reasonable to expect tries scored against weaker opposition not to carry much weight.
But Kirwan’s solo effort, receiving the ball from a kick-off and running it back 75 metres, virtually untouched, was a hair-raising blur of hip swerve and shimmy, power and pace. It might have come on the first afternoon, but nine World Cups later, it’s still the best individual try the event has seen.
The presentation of the Cup to victorious skipper David Kirk, immediately after the All Blacks had defeated France 29-9 in the final, also stands out. Alongside Kirk, captured in a rueful moment, was first-choice captain Andy Dalton, doing his best to share in the elation, but plainly aware of how he played no part in the tournament, having suffered a training injury.
For various reasons, not all great players get to shine at a World Cup. That rule doesn’t apply to David Campese, tormenting the All Blacks in a Dublin semi-final, weaving in and out before telepathically finding Tim Horan with an outrageous over the shoulder pass, on the way to the Wallabies winning the 1991 Cup.
It is the try Campese scored himself though, that stands out most for me; Campo running across the field like a kid in the under 7s, taunting and foxing the defence into believing that it wasn’t possible to score on that angle, until they realised – too late – that it actually was.
One lesson from that play is as relevant today as it ever was: there is no substitute for genuine pace.
1995 nearly brought about the World Cup’s first on-field drowning, with South Africa’s 19-15 semi-final win against France coming after the match was delayed due to a downpour leaving pools of water on the pitch.
The other semi-final wasn’t just about Jonah Lomu running over the top of England’s Mike Catt, as iconic as that moment is. What I remember the most is how good New Zealand was in the first quarter, firing shot after shot at England, who were powerless to do anything about it.
Stan Sport currently use the Lomu try as half-time filler, and if you get a chance, take a close look at the ‘work’ of England loose forward Tim Rodber in the lead-up. Everyone who played rugby in past generations knows what a hard, physical game it was. Yet to watch Rodber’s zero-intensity loafing in defence shows how far rugby has come in the professional age.
South Africa’s Final win is obviously epic. From a New Zealand point of view, perhaps the best thing that can be said is that the real thing was far easier to watch than the tosh served up by Clint Eastwood in Invictus.
Lomu was at it again in 1999, blasting down the sideline against England in front of my travel companions and I, during pool play. Our return to Twickenham for the semi-final was bittersweet, however, with New Zealand suffering a second-half blitz at the hands of France; the 43-31 scoreline ranking alongside Japan’s 2015 win over South Africa in Brighton, as the World Cup’s most astonishing result.
Of course, France winning against New Zealand isn’t and wasn’t, unusual. But on this day, with the All Blacks well in command at half-time, there was no hint of the 40-minute slaughter that was to follow.
French fans in the rows in front and behind me – grown men – were shamelessly driven to tears. In all of the emotional wreckage that ensued, from supporters of both sides, it was easy to rationalise the loss, knowing that the surreal performance represented the pinnacle in the lives of these rugby people.
The Final itself wasn’t a memorable match, with Australia always having things in hand. But the flight home the morning after was special; the Wallabies and the Cup on board, the players generously mixing with fans, albeit the notion of a planeload of people all sipping champagne from the same cup wouldn’t pass muster in a post-COVID world.
On quarter-final day, there was also a magical two hours spent in a chock-full Edinburgh pub watching England’s exit at the hands of South Africa. You can imagine how a well-lubricated mob of Scots and Kiwis dealt with that, the cheers growing louder with every one of Jannie de Beer’s four dropped goals.
In 2003, Carlos Spencer hit Stirling Mortlock on the chest and he ran straight towards my seat, in the very front row, behind the goalposts, to send John Mitchell’s All Blacks home empty-handed.
Jonny Wilkinson, of course, won all the plaudits for his Cup-winning drop-goal, but the lead-up to the final kick is a case study in how to execute in the clutch moments. Yes, the Wallabies should have cleared deeper, but England were always taking advantage, knowing exactly where they had to get to, to put Wilkinson in position A.
It was halfback Matt Dawson who took responsibility, dummying and slipping past Justin Harrison to gain the crucial 20 metres. Whatever Dawson achieved in his rugby career (84 caps for England and the Lions), or has gone on to achieve post-rugby, this ‘assist’ was surely his crowning moment.
Quarter-final weekend was memorable for finding the NZ Minister for Sport and Education asleep in a gutter at the Flinders Street railway station, in the late hours after the All Blacks had beaten South Africa. One can only imagine how that might have gone down in today’s TikTok era.
In 2007 I was attending a trade show in Auckland. After the All Blacks’ quarter-final loss to France, a pall enveloped the whole event. Few business deals were conducted that day, people were in shock, trying to process the loss, hurting at the unfairness of the of referee Wayne Barnes failing to pick up a forward pass.
New Zealand eventually managed to overcome the choker’s tag in 2011; ironically, only after they seized up in the Final and very nearly choked their way out of it. And just as Barnes had become public enemy No.1 for Kiwis four years earlier, this time it was Bryce Lawrence who enraged South Africans, for his confounding performance in their quarter-final loss to Australia.
Whitebaiter Stephen Donald was the unlikely hero of the Final, but it was the contribution of Piri Weepu I remember vividly; called into action in the play-off matches as stop-gap goal-kicker, as New Zealand’s specialists dropped like flies.
2015 is best remembered for Japan’s miraculous 34-32 win over South Africa, in Brighton. More than anything that has happened this year with the Wallabies, it is this win that has fans still believing that Eddie Jones has a rabbit up his sleeve for this World Cup.
Of the 1589 points Dan Carter scored in Test rugby, only 24 were from a drop kick. His 70th-minute effort in the Final was a thing of beauty; Carter swivelling and steadying before striking purely.
One more thing from 2015. There was widespread criticism of a lop-sided draw, conducted three years prior to the event, which saw the world’s second, third and fourth-ranked teams all drawn in the same pool, with England ultimately coming up short.
World Rugby’s Brett Gosper acknowledged after the event, “We’ll look at that next time to see if it’s possible to make the draw closer to the tournament.”
Sound familiar? The wheels of common sense and progress turn very slowly at World Rugby.
The two standout moments from 2019 are related; Japan beating Ireland, and then beating Scotland, to make the play-off phase.
The former I saw in a tiny bar with 30 of my newest, fondest Japanese friends, all beside themselves with excitement. The latter I saw live.
Japan’s embracing of the World Cup was a highlight in itself, probably akin to the groundswell of support that fell in behind the Matildas in the recent Women’s World Cup, with the unassuming Michael Leitch playing the Sam Kerr role.
What will the highlight be this time?
A Pacific nations team making the quarter-finals would be a good start, although for Fiji to do that, it places Australia’s progress at risk.
Certainly, it feels like there are upsets in the air. While Japan have regressed since 2019, weight of pressure and expectation does funny things, as it did in the women’s soccer, where many of the favoured teams were on their way home before the playoff phase.
As to what constitutes an upset, it all depends on your starting point. With nobody expecting Australia to win, are the Wallabies best placed to deliver a memorable upset?
Whatever happens, let’s hope the big talking point from this World Cup isn’t the influence of TMOs. There was a sense in last weekend’s final round of warm-up matches that things were tightening up. With the stakes so high, matches are being broken down into a series of big moments, with nervy officials needing to tick off each, one by one, before allowing the game to move on to the next.
That’s a scenario that suits South Africa to a tee; elongated match times, set piece over continuity. That’s fine; rugby has always been about teams trying to impose one style of play over another, but it’s not so fine if that occurs because match officials have succumbed to the disease of perfection seeking.
If the rugby is officiated from the pitch, this has the potential to be the grandest of all World Cups so far. If it happens to be officiated via television replay, then it’s going to be a long seven weeks.