Here’s to the Kiwis staging a spectacular show-stopper. May they make it a magnificent seventh World Cup – the richest and most rewarding of festivals so far, a gathering of the clan blessed with an abundance of stirring contests, razor-keen rivalries, chivalrous derring-do, high drama, low tackles, and a hatful of dazzling tries. All that and, it goes without saying, may the best team win.
Most fervently of all, however, I pray for some gloriously upset apple-carts. C’mon you giant killers! Please, oh please, can a few of you tiddlers rudely bite some of the big sharks painfully on the backside.
Since curtain-up in the inaugural pipe-opener in Auckland 24 years ago – New Zealand 70, Italy 6 – the game’s successive quadrennial Finals have not exactly overindulged in dragon-slaying upsets of the romantic kind which have traditionally illuminated knockout tournaments staged by other sports. Truth is that rugby’s first five World Cups remain almost exclusively logged in the history books as either embarrassing mismatches or heavyweight battles between the big beasts.
Till 2007 that is. Rugby’s last World Cup in France at least and at last offered a series of heart-warmingly rousing hints that a few of the presumed makeweight no-hopers were finally and boldly stirring themselves to dare put a few Goliaths to the sword.
That serious challenge to the established order, remember, had begun at the very beginning in the Stade de France when on opening night Argentina gloriously tweaked the hosts’ smug presumptions in the gala premiere – and the skilful, sassy, saucy South Americans were to repeat the dose, of course, at the closing curtain more than a month later when they beat the French again in the third-place play-off. Over the two games Argentina won by a total of 51-22, a sound thrashing in anyone’s language.
In between, Argentina not only beat Ireland and Scotland but inspired no end of threatened upsets from other unconsidered bold little big men and cock-eyed optimists. First, Fiji beat Wales 38-34 in that frenzied technicolour toe-to-toe shindig before, in the quarter-final, shaking the eventual champions South Africa till their teeth rattled – it was 20-20 with less than 20 minutes left. In turn, little Japan had given those same Fijians the fright of their lives at 35-31, as did Georgia to Ireland when, at 14-10, again there was only four points in it.
There were a few other dramatic instances of the old order being lined up for ambush in 2007 and, four years on, here’s to more of the same, but this time with giants not only being severely embarrassed but gaudily, cruelly and terminally slain.
Until that devout wish does come to pass, the fact remains that the two most compelling upsets to shake the game to its foundations in well over 200 matches played in the World Cup Finals since 1987 were those two eye-popping afternoons when, literally out of the blue, the French XV gloriously ran ragged the hitherto strutting and cocksure All Blacks – in the quarter-final of 2007 when Les Bleus won by 20-18 and, eight years before in the Twickenham semi, mesmerisingly by 43-31 after trailing 24-10.
Before then, I suppose the very first World Cup upset did produce rugby’s still most hoary and enduring joke – precisely 20 years ago this 6 October when, immediately after Wales’ cataclysmic defeat to Western Samoa in 1991, a red-faced red-decked Taff in an Arms Park bar sighed with relief: “At least, thank the Lord, we weren’t playing the whole of Samoa.”
To be sure, you’ve gotta slay a dragon or two.
This article appeared in the October 2011 issue of Rugby World Magazine.
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