Oct 30, 2019
- • FT’s rugby writer from 1995 to 2009
• Also writes for the International Herald Tribune and the Sunday Herald
This Saturday’s Rugby World Cup final between England and South Africa will be the culmination of a four-year cycle that began as the All Blacks toted the trophy around Twickenham in 2015.
A lot has happened since then; England recorded an emphatic 18-game winning streak under the new stewardship of Eddie Jones, finished fifth in the 2018 Six Nations and slowly resurged thereafter, climaxing with a dominating win over the All Blacks in the semifinals last weekend.
South Africa took a different journey. The Springboks appointed, and later sacked, Allister Coetzee as head coach, before giving the nod to Rassie Erasmus — who has turned the Springboks into a hard-to-beat powerhouse.
One of those two sides will be crowned champions this weekend, but here is a ranking of the eight Rugby World Cup finals that precede the matchup, and why one in particular is the best of them all.
8. South Africa 15, England 6, St. Denis, Oct. 20, 2007
England were just happy, and slightly disbelieving, to be there after being crushed 36-0 by the Springboks in the pool stage. They had, to their great credit, ground their way to the final on the back of sheer commitment, Jonny Wilkinson’s boot and a remarkable ability to make opponents — first Australia in the quarters then hosts France in the semis — play exactly the way they wanted. Their misfortune was that the Boks, whose smoothly efficient passage to the final was marked by the understated way they celebrated every victory, were more than happy to play that way as well, and were exceedingly good at it.
With Victor Matfield ruling the lineout, South Africa crushed the life out of England and the game, too — the one time it threatened to escape, Mark Cueto’s touchdown at the corner was ruled no try. Giving that it would at least have forced the Boks to open up slightly. Instead South Africa were able to grind their way to a win by five penalties to two. The 2019 rematch can only be better, can’t it?
7. Australia 35, France 12, Cardiff, Nov. 6, 1999
This was the one that, aside from the pleasure of a last pop at now-England head coach Eddie Jones, mostly likely prompted Warren Gatland’s musings about finalists being hungover from playing the game of their lives in the semifinals.
France had done just that in the lead-up to the 1999 final, having beaten the All Blacks against all odds six days earlier and now needing to prepare for unexpected opposition. Australia dominated from the start. They led 12-6 at halftime and steadily built their advantage thereafter with tries from Ben Tune and, after sublime handling from George Gregan, replacement forward Owen Finegan.
6. New Zealand 8, France 7, Auckland, Oct. 23, 2011
New Zealand, weighed down by memory, expectation and injuries, faced the single opponent who spooked them most, albeit a less vintage French crop than 1999. France must have felt even luckier to be in the final than England had in 2007 having lost to Tonga in the pool stages before seeing off a chaotic England side and 14-man Wales in the quarters and semis respectively. Even their goal-kicking was lousy.
The All Blacks, with Dan Carter injured and Richie McCaw on one leg, just about saw off their World Cup jinx, successfully battling against a spirited French comeback launched by a try from their heroic captain Thierry Dusautoir, a rare player who truly rose to the occasion of a World Cup final.
A sort of justice was done. France were better on the day, but New Zealand the best across the tournament that threatened a national nervous breakdown.
5. England 6, Australia 12, London, Nov. 2, 1991
This one was strange. England left behind the grinding style that brought them a Grand Slam and taken them through to the final via the brutally unlikely route of a quarterfinal against France in Paris followed by Scotland at Murrayfield in the semifinal. Yet, despite criticism that they were boring, England came through to face Australia in their first World Cup final, this time at Twickenham.
Perhaps they were right that more was needed against opponents as accomplished as the Australians, who had demolished the All Blacks in the semifinals, but the 180 degree shift to all-out attack still looks a chronic overreaction.
Australia held them at bay, claimed a try from a lineout from prop Tony Daly and were only seriously troubled once — when the mercurial fullback David Campese knocked down a pass that would probably have sent England wing Rory Underwood over in the corner. Had referee Derek Bevan given a penalty try rather than the penalty that Jon Webb converted, England would have been back in it, but still at best trailing 12-9.
4. New Zealand 29, France 9, Auckland, June 20, 1987
There was some decent rugby in this one, but it falls down a little on suspense. The first World Cup winners were the most conclusive. Scotland stayed in contention longest against New Zealand in the tournament but still went down 30-3 in the quarters before France went the way of every other opponent in the final. Trailing 9-0 at halftime, France were seen off by two rapid tries early in the second half.
New Zealand’s tries were scored by their outstanding players, with elegant flanker Michael Jones claiming the first before halftime, followed by scrum-half David Kirk, whose captaincy was a gift to headline writers across the world and peerless winger John Kirwan, who had opened the tournament with a length-of-the-field try against Italy. Grant Fox’s 17 points equaled his lowest in a fabulously productive tournament that left his set-up routine ingrained in the consciousness of every spectator.
France had arguably peaked in their epic semifinal against Australia a week earlier, but still had enough left at the end to claim a consolation try by Pierre Berbizier.
Kirk has admitted that hoisting the trophy was accompanied by a touch of sadness: “It was a bit like climbing Everest. The only way is down.”
3. New Zealand 34, Australia 17, London, Oct. 31, 2015
The one with the tries. The final thwarted by the French in 1987 and 1999 finally came to pass in 2015, and it proved worth the wait. If decent attacking play is your criterion, then this is the one. With five tries — only two fewer than in the previous six finals combined — and both sides displaying some real enterprise, this was a final for the neutral spectator.
The result was in doubt well into the second half, thanks to All Blacks’ Ben Smith getting himself sin-binned for a spear tackle. Down 21-3 and apparently dead, the Wallabies revived with two tries in his absence and brought it back to 21-17.
That Dan Carter kicked a drop goal, after landing only six in his previous 110 tests, showed the extent of the pressure they felt at this point.But New Zealand were always superior with 15 on the field and tries by Nehe Milner-Skudder and Ma’a Nonu were perhaps the best, in terms of owing more to attacking quality than defensive weakness, than those seen in any of the eight finals.
2. Australia 17, England 20 (aet), Sydney, 22 Nov 2003
That these rankings can be topped by two epic arm-wrestles may say something rather unflattering about World Cup finals as spectacle. Rather, it reflects the nature of the occasion. They are like Game 7 in American sports, the day on which winning is the only thing and tomorrow is of no consequence.
Played in the tipping rain of Sydney, this one saw England outlast the hosts and holders over 100 minutes on the back of Jonny Wilkinson’s drop goal.
England are possibly the only team to have won a World Cup on the way down from a peak represented by spectacular mid-year victories away to Ireland, Australia and New Zealand. But they still had the edge against the Wallabies. Rugby league recruits claimed the tries – Lote Tuqiri’s early score for Australia was balanced out by Jason Robinson’s for England, before Wilkinson kicked for victory.
The medals were handed out with a singular ill grace by Australian prime minister John Howard, seemingly in a hurry to go somewhere, and the trophy hoisted by England captain Martin Johnson — at last a properly gnarled rugby archetype after the four unfeasibly presentable young men who had preceded him.
1.South Africa 15, New Zealand 12 (aet), Johannesburg, June 24, 1995
Yes, I know, 100 minutes without a try. But it equals 2003 in screaming tension and edges it out in drama, context and surprise. To say South Africa is possibly the only World Cup winner to have defeated an intrinsically superior opponent does not diminish its achievement, quite the opposite.
The All Blacks would have been formidable even without Jonah Lomu, the ultimate in irresistible forces, but ran into a South Africa team which proved an immovable object, defeating Lomu by cutting off his supply lines with the same swarming defence that had thwarted holders Australia in the opening match at Cape Town.
Joel Stransky’s second drop goal performed the same decisive role as Wilkinson’s eight years later. But, in 1995, the chap handing out the medals knew exactly how to do it. Not least of Nelson Mandela’s talents was the grasp of political theatre shown by pitching up in the same green No. 6 shirt as Bok skipper Francois Pienaar, a decent player who attained greatness on this one afternoon.
It took that level of performance to beat this All Black team, who handled defeat with some grace, perhaps understanding that in the context of post-apartheid South Africa, this was one World Cup final whose importance extended beyond mere rugby.