As 20 nations gear up for a fascinating Rugby World Cup in Japan, we reminisce over the greatest moments from the tournament’s previous eight editions.
Blanco steals semi (1987)
Co-hosts Australia carved a dominant path to the final four of the inaugural Rugby World Cup and went into their Concord Oval semi against France as hot favourites. But the teams played out a parry-and-thrust thriller, with Michael Lynagh and Didier Camberabero trading penalties as the second half wound down. The scoreboard was locked at 24-all with time almost up when France produced a 75-metre counterattack for the ages, finishing with electrifying fullback Serge Blanco diving over in the corner for the match-winner.
Alan Jones’ decorated tenure as Wallabies coach ended with a similarly heart-breaking loss five days later as Wales (who went down 49-6 to New Zealand in the other semi) burgled a 22-21 victory in the third-place playoff via a last-minute sideline conversion. The All Blacks swamped France 29-9 in the Auckland-hosted final to become rugby union’s first official world champions.
All Blacks Go Back-to-Back (2015)
Fierce rivals New Zealand and Australia had met in three Rugby World Cup semis leading into the 2015 tournament, but never in a final. The dream match-up belatedly came to fruition after the neighbouring nations walked the sudden-death tightrope – with the Wallabies squeaking past Scotland 35-34 in the quarters and the All Blacks edging South Africa 20-18 in the semis – to the Twickenham decider.
A tense first half looked set to finish try-less, but the defending champs took a stranglehold on the match with tries to Nehe Milner-Skudder and Ma’a Nonu either side of the break. The Wallabies rallied impressively, however, trimming the deficit to four after David Pocock and Tevita Kuridrani scored. New Zealand became the first country to win consecutive World Cups, though, sealing a 34-17 triumph when bench weapon Beauden Barrett streaked away to finish an 80-metre try.
The Astonishing Semis of ’99 (1999)
The two semi-finals in 1999 dished up a tournament’s worth of drama and earned instant places in Rugby World Cup folklore. Australia outlasted South Africa 27-21 in a nerve-shredding, try-less encounter at Twickenham that went into extra-time. The mercurial Stephen Larkham broke the deadlock during extra-time with a now-iconic 48-metre drop goal.
A mouth-watering trans-Tasman final loomed when New Zealand led France 24-10 the following day. But the All Blacks had no answer when the famous ‘Les Bleus’ unpredictability and flair went into overdrive after the break. A pair of Christophe Lamaison drop goals swung the momentum France’s way and the shell-shocked ABs crumbled as the underdogs piled on three freakish tries, leaving four million Kiwis in stunned disbelief.
The Wallabies went on to clinch their second World Cup crown with a resounding 35-12 win over the enigmatic French in the decider.
‘Four more years’ (2003)
The Wallabies pulled off a king-sized upset of the All Blacks in the 2003 semi-final, becoming the first defending champs to reach the following World Cup final. Australian centre Stirling Mortlock set the tone with an 80-metre intercept try from a Carlos Spencer pass in the ninth minute, while Elton Flatley booted 17 points in a convincing 22-10 win over the near-unbackable favourites. The result sealed, Wallabies halfback George Gregan famously barked “four more years” at his vanquished opponents during the dying stages.
Manu Samoa Stand Up on World Stage (1991)
After failing to qualify for the inaugural tournament, Western Samoa captured the hearts of rugby fans everwhere at the 1991 World Cup. New Zealand provincial players To’o Vaega, Frank Bunce, Stephen Bachop, Pat Lam and Brian Lima were prominent as the island nation shocked Wales 16-13 at Cardiff Arms Park, held eventual champs Australia try-less in a stoic 9-3 loss and clinched a historic quarter-final berth with a 35-12 beat-down of Argentina. They lost convincingly to Scotland in the quarters, but Western Samoa’s cherished place in the Rugby World Cup narrative had already been cemented.
Lynagh Rescues Wallabies in Dublin (1991)
Before surging to a euphoric World Cup triumph in 1991, the Wallabies had to perform a quarter-final escape act against Ireland in Dublin. A dazzling David Campese double put Australia in control, but the Landsdowne Road crowd went berserk after flanker Gordon Hamilton finished off a long-range try to put the hosts in front.
Staring down the barrel of a three-point deficit and an embarrassingly early Cup exit, the Wallabies got out of jail with a last-gasp try to flyhalf Michael Lynagh.
Australia confirmed the new world order with a Campese- and Tim Horan-inspired 16-6 semi-final triumph over the ageing All Blacks and a tense 12-6 victory over England in the Twickenham final.
Lomu Steamrolls Way to Immortality (1995)
Few athletes have captured the imagination in any code’s World Cup like All Blacks wing behemoth Jonah Lomu did in 1995. Barely 20 years old, Lomu was virtually unstoppable during New Zealand’s charge to the final, terrorising each of the four British Isles nations.
The coup de grace – and arguably the most replayed footage in RWC history – was Lomu’s four-try haul in the semi-final demolition of England, specifically his trampling opposing of fullback Mike Catt that prompted Keith Quinn’s memorable on-air orgasm.
South Africa’s ability to shut down Lomu was critical to their 15-12 extra-time upset of the All Blacks (who were hampered by a food poisoning outbreak that swept through the team) in a dramatic try-less final in Johannesburg.
All Blacks Overcome French Resistance (2011)
Inaugural champs New Zealand’s inability to add a second World Cup to their tally – despite invariably being the best team on the planet in any given season – became the subject of national ignominy. But the hoodoo appeared destined to end in emphatic fashion as the All Blacks thumped the Wallabies 20-6 in the semis.
The hosts lined up against France, a team they had already trounced 37-17 during pool play, in the Eden Park final. But the decider was an epic, gruelling showdown that whittled Kiwi supporters’ nerves down to shrivelled little nubs. After a clutch penalty goal from international discard Steven ‘Beaver’ Donald – famously recalled mid-tournament after injuries cut through the All Blacks’ No.10 ranks – New Zealand clung to an 8-7 lead for the last 33 minutes of an unforgettable duel.
Japan Stun Springboks in Movie-Worthy Upset (2015)
Japan entered the annals of sport’s all-time greatest international upsets with their back-from-the-dead triumph over perennial heavyweights South Africa. The Cherry Blossoms had never beaten a tier one nation and they seemed set to snatch an unlikely draw in Brighton when the referee awarded a scrum penalty in handy position with time up.
Astonishingly, Japan opted for another scrum and pounded the South African try-line. With the clock reading just shy of 84 minutes, the underdogs swung the ball from one sideline to the other before Karne Hesketh plunged over out wide. Eddie Jones’ heroes failed to qualify for the quarter-finals, but the undisputed moment of the 2015 World Cup belonged to Japan.
The boilover spawned the recently-released movie The Brighton Mircale, starring Temuera ‘Jake the Muss’ Morrison as Jones.
Wilkinson’s Golden Boot Seals England Triumph
There is little argument over which is the greatest Rugby World Cup final of them all.
Defending champs Australia had secured a surprise spot in the 2003 decider by rolling the All Blacks, while England rode the metronomic brilliance of Johnny Wilkinson’s kicking and the platform set by a bruising pack to their shot at history.
Lote Tuiqiri crossed for the opening try in just the sixth minute, but fellow rugby league convert Jason Robinson responded for England shortly before halftime. Three penalty goals from Wallabies No.12 Elton Flatley – including a super-clutch strike on the bell to send the final into extra-time – were the only scoring plays of the second half.
Flatley and Wilkinson traded penalties in extra-time, before the latter’s drop goal in the 100th minute secured the William Webb Ellis Trophy for the Poms for the first time (cue mass knighthoods, MBEs and OBEs).