The quarter-finals of this World Cup produced two classics, but where do they rank in the all-time standings?
What makes a great World Cup game? The list of criteria is as long as your arm. Jeopardy, ebb and flow, great scores, heroic characters, a plot that twists this way and that. There are many games with great moments and superlative, unforgettable performances but that doesn’t automatically make them truly great games. The bar is extraordinarily high.
Had you constructed this list pre-2023 World Cup it would look different to the one we deliver now. We’ve had some epics in France and a number of them went rocketing not just into the top-10 of all-time, but into the penthouse of the pantheon of greatness.
Top ten greatest Rugby World Cup games
10 England 25 Wales 28, Twickenham, 2015
The hosts were shocked to the core by a Welsh team that would never say die. Comeback after comeback, drama upon drama, Gareth Davies and Dan Biggar delivering a seismic win. England never recovered, Out of their own World Cup they went, in the group stage
9 Australia 35 Scotland 34, Twickenham, 2015
Mark Bennett’s try and Greig Laidlaw’s conversion with five minutes to go looked like putting Scotland into the semi-final after a captivating game. Controversy enveloped this classic in the dying seconds. The Wallabies were given a deeply dubious penalty, which Bernard Foley converted. Referee Craig Joubert ran off to avoid the flak.
8 Ireland 18 Australia 19, Dublin, 1991
As Gordon Hamilton ran away to score in the final minutes of this startling quarter-final, 54,000 folk at Lansdowne Road went ballistic at the certainty of their underdogs making a semi-final. Oh dear. They messed up in the final seconds and Michael Lynagh sickened them with a try in the corner. The quarter-final curse lives on to this day.
7 Fiji 23 Portugal 24, Toulouse, 2023
Breathtaking. Impossible to take your eyes off it. All the ingredients of a tumultuous occasion. After non-stop action, Rodrigo Marta scored a try in the 78th minute to narrow the gap to one point before Samuel Marques banged over the match-winning conversion, The outpouring of emotion that greeted brilliant Portugal’s first ever World Cup win was magnificent.
6 Australia 17 England 20 (aet), Sydney, 2003
Tense and tremendous, the final went all the way. People forget how good Eddie Jones’ Wallabies really were. England were that just tiny bit better, The drop goal from Jonny Wilkinson settled it – one of the most iconic moments in World Cup history
5 Australia 24 France 30, Sydney, 1987
Three times France fell behind in this semi-final and three times they came roaring back. The last act was just remarkable. The score was level at 24-24. Extra-time beckoned, but France had other ideas.
Attacking from deep, the ball went through 11 sets of French hands with the great Serge Blanco finishing it off mesmerically in the corner. The crowd was a mere 17,768, Just shows you how far rugby has come in the years since.
4 South Africa 32 Japan 34, Brighton, 2015
So good they made a film of it. The greatest upset not just in the history of the World Cup but in the history of the sport. They could have kicked a late penalty for a draw, but Japan shocked the Springboks, and the entire rugby eco-system, by boldly going for the try. Karne Hesketh scored in the 80th minute. Still sends a shiver up the spine.
3 France 43 New Zealand 31, Twickenham, 1999
For years, this epic would have topped many lists. Two Jonah Lomu tries put the hot favourites 24-10 ahead early in the second half. Enter Christophe Lamaison’s boot and the running genius of Les Bleus. Christophe Dominici, Richard Dourthe and Philippe Bernat-Salles all scored as jaws dropped to the Twickenham floor at the majesty of the French
2 Ireland 24 New Zealand 28, Paris, 2023
This isn’t recency bias. This quarter-final was staggering, like two heavyweights trading blow for blow for 80 minutes. Three tries apiece, attacking rugby to die for, unbelievable intensity, All Black defence in the death throes that was just staggering.
It had everything. Irish hearts broken. All Blacks resurgent. Once Saint Joe in his wonderful years with Leinster and Ireland, Joe Schmidt, in his role as assistant coach with the All Blacks, returned to haunt Johnny Sexton in his final game.
1 France 28 South Africa 29, Paris, 2023
The All Blacks victory stood at number one in the list of great World Cup contests for 24 hours. Five tries in the first 30 minutes. It was an unrelenting exhibition of magisterial rugby. It had all the grunt you could possibly want, but much of the quality was other-worldly. You never wanted it to stop. Rugby from the Gods. A game for the ages.