RUGBY WORLD CUP PART II
The 1987 Rugby World Cup was a roaring success and the IRB quickly decided to make it a regular part of the Rugby season. It would take place every 4 yours like the other international tournaments (Olympics, Soccer World Cup) and would be hosted by a country, or countries, from a separate hemisphere each time around. As the first World Cup took place in New Zealand and Australia, it was decided that countries in the Northern Hemisphere would host the 2nd tournament, to be held in 1991. It was split between the 5 countries of Ireland, England, Scotland, Wales and France. One difference between the tournaments was that, while teams were invited to the ’87 tournament they would have to qualify this time around. This meant that not every team that took part in ’87 would be there in ’91. New teams would be featuring. The teams competing in the 1991 tournament would be the seven IRB Nations (Ireland, England, Scotland, Wales, France, Australia and New Zealand. South Africa were still barred from competing) and Zimbabwe, Italy, Romania, Fiji, Japan, Argentina, The United States and Canada. Tonga failed to qualify for the tournament, there place being taken by Western Samoa. With South Africa still banned from international rugby there would be a vacancy in the quarter-finals to be filled by one of these teams. Matches would be shared amongst the 5 host countries, with the final taking place in England’s rugby headquarters, Twickenham.
Many of the teams had improved their training methods and outlook since the inaugural tournament and it showed in their results. England, especially, had made substantial improvements since there unceremonious loss to Wales in one of the Quarter-Finals. They had started a new training regime just before the 1987 World Cup, but it proved to be too late to help them in that tournament. Now it was paying dividends. They beat Australia in 1988 and then came close to winning the Grand Slam in 1989 and 1990, before finally winning in 1991. Scotland as well had progressed to winning the Grand Slam in 1990 with the best-ever performance by a Scottish team. Both England and Scotland would provide the bulk of the Lions squad that beat Australia in 1989. While most of the countries had made major improvements, there were two that had remained stagnant, ironically the 2 most successful sides of the tournament. New Zealand had run roughshod over everyone to win the first World Cup and went on to remain unbeaten over the next 3 years. But the team had become complacent. They had seen no need in changing a winning formula and, inevitably, cracks had appeared. Most of their top players had passed their primes and new players weren’t being brought in quickly enough. The world champions were beginning to look vulnerable. Wales had shocked everyone by beating Australia to achieve 3rd place rank. They were unwilling to admit that their victory was more of a fluke than anything and refused to change their methods. Although they won the triple crown in 1988 this would be the last of their triumphs for some years. They would suffer a severe downturn in fortunes over the next few years. This was not helped by around 16 of their top players switching codes to Rugby League.
One of the aims of the World Cup was to increase the strength of some of the 2nd tier teams/minnows. This has proven to be a success as seen with the elevation of Italy to the 5 (becoming 6) Nations. Argentina have also benefited greatly, inserting themselves amongst the top teams. Others like Canada, Fiji and Japan, have also made great strides. Romania looked to be the first minnow to break into the upper echelons with a very superior pack and some good backs. Unfortunately a tragedy would befall the country that would put an end to their progress. There was a revolution in the country in 1989, which overthrew the Communist leader Nicolae Ceausescu. This led, as it often does, to a civil war. Many of Romania’s best rugby players lost their lives during both conflicts. While Romania has managed to feature in every World Cup, its results have being hardly memorable. Still, they have managed to gain entry into every tournament which is something, and have won at least 1 game each time round, which isn’t bad.
The biggest shock of the opening pool stages, indeed the whole tournament, was Wales’s loss to Western Samoa. This was the biggest upset to happen in rugby at the time and Wales became the first of the original 7 IRB nations to progress pass the pool stages. South Africa’s place were taken by Canada who faced New Zealand in a spirited but ultimately losing effort. Scotland found themselves competing against Western Samoa when all their preparations had been geared towards meeting Wales. Scotland managed to win a very hard, gruelling game to advance to the Semi-final, in what would be their greatest ever performance in a World Cup, while Western Samoa left to cheers and returned to their country as conquering heroes. England and France met in the 3rd Quarter-final which would prove to be a hard, uncompromising battle, in which the most memorable aspect of the game would take place off the field. After losing a hard-fought game, an irate French coach is supposed to have berated the referee and even physically assaulted him! The French coach was later removed from his post. The final of the 4 were turn out to be the most memorable game of the tournament, and the most exciting. And it almost never happened!
Everyone who saw the game remembers Ireland’s great performance against Australia in that quarter-final. Gordon Hamilton running half the length of the pitch to put Ireland ahead while a cheering Landsdowne Rd crowd celebrated. With only minutes left, deputy Australian Captain (Nick-Farr Jones had had to leave the match injured) Michael Lynagh, one of the true greats kept his team calm and Australia managed to win an epic encounter. But what most people don’t realise is that Ireland almost never competed in that tournament. While the World Cup was being organised, form was sent around to the players which would give all their intellectual property rights to the Word Cup committee. This caused great disharmony between the Irish players and the IRFU, the governing body of Irish Rugby. The IRFU wanted to sign the documents on the players behalf’s, giving the players no say in the matter. The players refused to sign any documents and almost went on ‘strike’. Luckily things were sorted and Ireland did compete. Relations would be strained, though, between the players and the officials from then on.
Scotland faced England in the first semi-final, which took place in Murrayfield, the home of Scottish rugby. Both teams had featured in a cracking game there in the previous years (1990) 5 Nations, where Scotland stunned the world by winning the Grand Slam. The Scots were unable to repeat their great performance and lost. Gavin Hastings was their goal-kicker and succumbed to big day nerves. While he features second on the overall list of top points scorers in the World Cup, with 227, his nerves failed him on the big day and he missed 2 relatively easy penalties. One of the true greats, and considered Scotland’s best ever player but he showed that even the very best can have their off days (on a personal note he would feature in my best ever Lions team as full back). There’s a funny story relating to the match. A distraught Scotland team returned to the dressing room and were sitting in morose silence. Hastings came in, crestfallen and saw his distressed team-mates. He’s supposed to have said something along the lines of ‘aw jaysus boys, I’m sorry! I could kick myself!’ to which one of his team-mates is supposed to have replied, ‘don’t bother. You’d probably miss! Classic.
New Zealand faced their neighbours Australia in the other semi-final, which took place in Lansdsdowne. The All Blacks had failed to really put their mark on the tournament, like they had in 1987, and their poor form showed against opposition that would not be over-awed by their mere presence. The Wallabies were galvanised by their remarkable winger, David Campese. One of the very best players, he took New Zealand to pieces, scoring one try and setting up another. Equally famous as infamous, his skill was only matched by his ability as a wind-up merchant. Surprisingly quick considering how many times he got his feet caught in his mouth! (sorry). When Australia faced England in the final, Campeses had being badgering the English team throughout the tournament, lambasting their style of play (boring). It seems that his words hit home as England decided to change their tactics in the final and play a more open, expansive game. This would prove to be their downfall and Australia came out the victors, ironically playing a more conservative game than their usual flee-flowing fare. Amongst the Australian supporters were the Scottish rugby team, appearing in replica Wallaby jerseys! This showing did not improve already tense relations between the Scotland and England.
So Australia were crowned the second World Cup champions, though their victory would, like their antipodean neighbours New Zealand, prove to be somewhat shallow as they had not faced one of the true rugby giants South Africa. This would change as the hateful Apartheid regime was crumbling and soon South Africa would be allowed back into the rugby fold and be allowed entry into the World Cup. Indeed, in 4 years time, they would be given the job of host country. This would lead to one of the most memorable moments, not only in sport but in the whole world.