Best of RWC - Episode 2
Part 2 of the series celebrating the upsets and classic matches of the seven Rugby World Cups to date.
The extension of the original concept of this “series” based on RWC Upsets was the “Almost Upset”. There have been a few matches where the unexpected almost happened – by way of example many would probably quote Ireland-Australia QF in ’91. It was a short leap of thought process to salute some of the real classics that perhaps weren’t actual upsets.
Criteria for inclusion of a given match is, umm, fluid, and really comes down to whether I found the game engenders emotion of some sort – perhaps due to a close finish, the quality of rugby, the importance to the tournament, a combination, or indeed none of those factors and I just liked the game.
What follows is my recollection of those games, other than explored in Episode 1, but made us sit up and take notice, in New Zealand and Australia in 1987.
As I’ve mostly written from memory, if there are any factual inaccuracies I’m not surprised.
New Zealand 70 v Italy 6
The opening game of the inaugural Cup tournament was famous if for nothing else for John Kirwan’s remarkable (near) length of the field try.
However there were plenty of other aspects which elevate this match to “classic” status the most memorable include:
- It was the first EVER game of World Cup rugby;
- The fact that nobody scored the first try in World Cup rugby (it was a penalty try);
- Michael Jones became the first individual try-scorer;
- David Kirk and John Kirwan engineered a try by opting to take a quick lineout from a kick out on the full, surprising everybody, not least of all their own teammates, and have created a headache for forwards ever since as every back wants to replicate this, but its now so obvious that everyone is awake to it;
- JK’s try (the final of an incredible run of three solo tries on Eden Park that year, the earlier two for Auckland in the South Pacific Championship v. Queensland and Fiji) brought up 50 points for the All Blacks for the first time in a test in which NZ awarded caps (NZ’s normal policy was to recognise tests only against the other seven full IRB member nations);
- Italian captain Mazio Innocenti won the hearts of the host country by shedding tears in the post-match interview, such was the pride that the Italian’s felt at the honour of playing the opening game and their embarrassment at the final score.
- This match introduced World Cup rugby with a bang. In fact the first weekend of the inaugural tournament was one of, if not the most spectacular in the history of the tournament, only the bumblefest that was England v Australia (looking at you Dave Bishop for awarding Campo that howler), although Mike Harrison’s try was memorable, and the mid-week borefest that was Wales v Ireland managed to spoil the party. (Canada-Tonga didn’t make it on to this or the Upset list – but it was an enjoyable game of footy.)
Romania 21 v Zimbabwe 20
This game will be remembered for Zimbabwe centre Richard Tsimba’s spectacular try. Perhaps by today’s standards the try is not remarkable and in any one week of modern Super Rugby you would see 10 better (and perhaps in every 10 weeks of Six Nations you might see one better). Even in those days backs were capable of bursting through the midfield and running a distance, but this level of class was unexpected in this level of international. He moved so brilliantly through the gap that all of a sudden the potential for rugby throughout the rest of Africa was apparent to all (note to IRB: what have you done about it?).
Unfortunately in scoring the try by executing an ambitious dive Tsimba fell heavily and badly injured his shoulder, requiring substitution. Tsimba’s absence seemed to affect the Zimbabweans as experienced Romanian half-back and captain Mircea Paraschiv led a remarkable comeback with Romania beating the clock and the Africans with three late tries.
Romania lost the player who was slated to be their star player of the tournament in the opening minutes, the winger (whose name escapes me) tearing a hamstring the first time he got a chance to stretch the legs.
Neither team progressed past the group stage, both being soundly beaten by eventual runners up France and the extremely strong (and poorly seeded) Scotland.
Digressing slightly, Tsimba’s dive may have in fact been a bad personal playing habit: in Zimbabwe’s last game against France, again at Eden Park, although still affected by the injury he returned to the side and late in the game made a break up the left hand touch. Instead of diving in low for the corner he dived high offering a target for the French cover defender to bundle him into the corner flag. Tsimba suffered an untimely early death some years ago, passing away following a motor-vehicle accident.
France 20 v Scotland 20
This match had the potential to change the entire complexion of the tournament.
In effect the 20-all result was a “win” for France (based on tries scored in the game 3-2) that resulted in the semi-finals being played as “seeded”: France managing to avoid the All Blacks in the Quarters (much to the relief of those All Black fans who knew the draw).
To digress, it was evident that Scotland deserved a better fate than meeting the tournament co-favourites in the first knock-out round. In fact there is evidence to suggest that Scotland were deserving of at least a semi-final finish.
The IRB in their wisdom compounded this early seeding mistake by basing subsequent tournaments’ seeding on the result of the previous one. They must however be commended on their current attempt to base seedings for the RWC on actual rankings (although some additional fine tuning is in order).
An audacious piece of larceny by Serge Blanco looked to have stolen the game for the French when the great fullback tapped a kickable penalty when the Scots’ backs were turned and ran nearly half the length to grab the lead with the final whistle approaching.
However in a remarkable finish Scottish winger Matt Duncan crashed over out wide to give Gavin Hastings the chance to take the win, but the other great fullback of the 80s & 90s could not land the two points that would have given them a win and a quarter final against Fiji.
The other abiding memory was of the French forwards constantly crushing up one off the ruck on the right hand side for Phillipe Sella to crash over out wide in an explosion of those strange (for then) cardboard corner flags.
France 31 v Fiji 16 – QF3
The legend of the Fiji-France quarter final has grown with the telling.
France were never in any realistic danger in this match – although Fiji probably caused the odd palpitation.
Popular legend would have you believe that when the ball in big Severo Koroduadua’s one-handed carry squeezed out as he sprinted down the touchline the game turned away from Fiji as he would have scored and the momentum was well in Fiji’s favour.
While spectacular, my memory suggests that even if the big fella had managed a try, and there was still a fair amount of cover likely to prevent him getting to the goal line, Fiji were still some distance behind their favoured European opponents.
But why spoil a good story?
There were glimpses of the classic Fiji in this match as they staged a mini-comeback to raise Gallic blood pressure above shoulder shrug level, but in the end a comfortable win for the French saw them advance to Sydney and the epic Semi-final against Australia.
New Zealand 29 v France 9 – Final
This match is included as much because any final deserves inclusion in the “Classics” and because this was the ultimate demonstration of the All Blacks’ class in this tournament.
Captain David Kirk suggested that when he scored his try (off a well worked move down the right hand blindside, popping up inside Michael Jones who had combined with Grant Fox) mid-way through the second spell was the point he was confident of the victory.
It was amazing he could remember his try as immediately from the restart he burst through the French defence and was poleaxed in the tackle, and spent a number of minutes regaining his feet. While Kirk was trying to remember where he was Wayne Shelford had cleared the ball to a flying John Kirwan who flew 25m and crashed over in the right hand corner. It was at that point that the New Zealand fans started celebrating.
Oddly, although tournaments were meant to follow at four yearly intervals there was never another real Rugby World Cup until 2011. Was there? At least, none that I could recall.