Best of RWC - Episode 8


1999 – Upsets

Episode 8 in a Series celebrating the upsets and classic matches at Rugby World Cups.

This instalment: 1999, Back in Britain (the one all you closet French supporters have been waiting for … or should that now be the first one all you closet French supporters have been waiting for…):

As previously, I wrote this mostly from memory so feel free to point out the factual inaccuracies.

Samoa 38 v Wales 31

For the second time in two Europe based tournaments Manu Samoa upset the Welsh at home. The win was enough to propel them into the knock-out stages for the third time in as many tournaments. They finished pool play on two wins, the same as both Argentina and Wales, allowing all three to advance, Wales directly to the QFs and Argentina and Samoa to the strange repecharge system in place in this tournament.

I stayed up all night to watch this, and several other top games the same night, and I recall being glad I did as it was an enjoyable game of footy, I just can’t tell you anything about it.

Argentina 28 v Ireland 24 – Quarter Final Playoff

The weirdness of the 1999 draw (the IRB had decided that 20 teams in five pools was an efficient way of trying to find 8 quarter finalists) created the need for “Quarter Final Play-offs” or repecharges.

Argentina made up the numbers by finishing third in their pool behind Wales and Samoa, all three separated by points difference as they all finished on 7 points. Ireland, as the traditional IRB member country in this pairing, were expected to progress from this game

Actually I can’t provide any more information on this game than I can for the Samoa v Wales game, but this time it was due to the match being played during work hours and there was no radio commentary (except for he final few minutes when the RadioSport morning jock of the day, the one with the Irish surname, was watching tele and relaying it to us and cheering for the Paddies).

I definitely recall being rapt with the result, especially as another then still developing rugby nation had made the Quarter Finals, in this case on their fourth attempt.

France 43 v New Zealand 31

It’s strange. I have only blank where the memory of this game should be.

OK not entirely true: I have bitterness and loathing, sadness and anger. It was an interesting contrast in emotions from the loss in the 1995 final. At that time there was sadness and disbelief but ultimately pride in a team and organisation that did everything they could to win the cup, and played a magnificent brand of rugby along the way, only to be pipped by an even more magnificent effort (ill-health notwithstanding).

This result made me and many others angry, which, as much as I was a fan of John Hart, can be traced back to how the coach ran this campaign, or at least the perception thereof.

This was, and possibly still remains, perhaps the biggest upset in the history of Rugby World Cups (maybe, just maybe, excluding the 2007 quarter final), but even a cursory review of the lead-in to this game indicates that observers should have seen it coming.

Much has been made of the NZ TAB’s odds on France ($8 in a two horse race!), and several New Zealand City Council’s fighting over the hosting of a victory parade.

As with most good legends there is an element of truth and more than a smidge of “misinterpretation”, the latter usually to a degree that suits the storyteller’s own purposes. Yes, France was a little over the odds on the NZ TAB as, being All Blacks fans, most of the money that was bet in the NZ TAB was placed on NZ. And as for the parades, should, perchance, the ABs actually collect the silverware (actually goldware) there would not be time to organise celebrations after the fact: so it was prudent to plan “just in-case”.

However it suited (and suits) some who are anti-fans of New Zealand to claim it was/is hubris (I think that’s the right word, i.e., arrogance coming a gutser).

There were several remarkable aspects to this match. Firstly that New Zealand were such overwhelming favourites in the first place. The All Blacks were coming off their worst year in history: they had not fully recovered from the unprecedented and unrepeated five losses on the trot in 1998, and were still displaying hints of the fragility that resulted.

Despite an improved ’99 Tri-Nations they failed to regain the Bledisloe in the infamous “Ambush at Homebush”. In fact in that match, their last immediately prior to the tournament, New Zealand suffered what remains their largest ever loss in a test match.

Coach John Hart’s selections were an issue. Hart deserves the highest praise for revolutionising the game (in rivalry with Grizz Wyllie) in the 1980s. He was looking for a similar quantum improvement come 1999. It appears that he either read the trends wrong or did not have the talent available to play the pattern he wanted – or both – as the new generation of All Blacks re-built following the attrition from the successful mid-90s team. But they were out-muscled. Hart was looking for mobility, while the world was moving to power, and the New Zealand public were vocal in questioning Hart’s policies.

In particular, in my opinion, the looseforwards lacked presence. Taine Randall, gallant as captain but lacking the command and mana of his predecessors, at number 8 brought effective defense and support play but was too much like Reuben Thorne, his back-row companion at blindside. Too much glue, not enough impact (more about glue in 2003).

On top of all of that, backlines were reshuffled in an attempt to fit the most talented players in, and players did not look comfortable in their new positions: Christian Cullen, possibly the best ever All Black fullback, was moved into centre; Jeff Wilson, the classy right winger was moved to fullback and the backline stuttered when the French amped up the pressure in the second half.

According to the New Zealand Rugby Museum website France came into the game after coming last in the Five Nations (according to Wikipedia it expanded to Six Nations in 2000).

Also remarkable was that the All Blacks were leading by 14 points into the second half of this game. Jonah Lomu, whose greatest performances included both his RWC semi-final appearances, scored amazing tries on either side of half-time, eclipsing the early French try.

Then the French flicked the switch into “good France” mode. Two drop-goals in quick time by Christophe Lamaison immediately following Lomu’s second try rocked the All Blacks confidence which had been badly bruised by 1998, and although still leading they were shaken. The French could smell blood. They pounced.

They bullied and harried and forced All Black mistakes, and suddenly were in front capitalising on errors created by their pressure.

The result was (rightly) celebrated throughout the rugby world (everybody loves an underdog) except in two poxy islands in the South Pacific, where anger at the selections and apparent aloofness and corporate speak of the coach (boy, did those complaining have something to learn about just how far aloofness and managerial doublespeak can be taken – wait for AllBlackCoach Release.2003 …) was rife.

The bitterness and recriminations were of course well over the top, and I won’t explore that further here. And it is to be hoped that New Zealanders are slowly maturing. The reaction post 2007, despite the best efforts of some in the media to whip up a frenzy, was much more mature.

In the lessons learned file it took at least one more Cup failure until a coach would realize that the fans are actually on the same side, and would work hard to keep them there. In that way should the unthinkable happen and the All Blacks not win it is unlikely that the bitterness of 1999 & 2003 will be repeated.

As for the French, well the final was a bridge too far. Like in 1987 some suggested that they had “played their final the week before”. This is disrespectful to both the French but more so the Wallabies who went on to win their second “Bill”. But although they could not reproduce the same form in the final nobody could deny they were unstoppable in that second half at Twickenham.

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