It’s 20 years since Australia were crowned 1999 world champions. Jacob Whitehead looks back at a handful of key events from the tournament
Five memorable moments from the 1999 Rugby World Cup
How do we remember Rugby World Cups? In 2015 we had England’s capitulation and New Zealand’s dominance, 2011 saw the Kiwis finally put their hoodoo to bed, 2007 was Bryan Habana’s tournament, whilst no England fan can forget 2003.
But what if we rewind 20 years to the 1999 World Cup? It was a confusing World Cup, hosted across five nations but focused on the Millennium Stadium, and one that New Zealand are better known for losing than Australia are for winning.
Professionalism had been introduced only three years before, but the sports science explosion of 2003 had not yet taken place. Baggy shirts were still in vogue, TMO was a foreign acronym and Leicester Tigers were able to win a game of rugby.
It was a different time, but not yet a forgotten one, so here are five memorable moments from the 1999 Rugby World Cup…
1. England’s game against New Zealand
It’s a very strange quirk of scheduling that England haven’t met New Zealand at a World Cup since 1999. For a little context, in the same period they’ve met Australia, France and South Africa three times each. England have never beaten the All Blacks at a World Cup and in 1999 probably still felt the bruises from Jonah Lomu’s barnstorming performance in the previous tournament, as they fell to a 30-16 defeat.
The two sides met at Twickenham, with the England team an embryonic version of that which would triumph four years later. Clive Woodward was coaching at his first World Cup, whilst a 20-year-old Jonny Wilkinson started at stand-off.
England were behind at half-time, New Zealand scoring through Jeff Wilson after a Christian Cullen burst. Yet after the break England dragged themselves back into the game, with Phil de Glanville scoring a scrappy try via Justin Marshall’s head and the base of the post. They all count, although the balletic brutality with which Lomu swept aside the England defence to score ten minutes later could have been worth double.
Will we see a rematch this year?
2. Those crazy quarter-final play-offs
In 1999 the tournament expanded from 16 to 20 teams – and one of the strangest structures of any international tournaments. Instead of the current iteration of four pools, each with five teams, the organisers decided to have an indulgent five pools. Five doesn’t go into eight, and so the organisers were forced to introduce the strange hurdle of the quarter-final play-off.
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This gave Ireland the chance to avoid losing in the quarter-finals once more, but still keep alive their tradition of failing to win a World Cup knockout game. They fell to a narrow 28-24 defeat to Argentina in Lens, conceding ten points in the final ten minutes.
At Twickenham, England beat Fiji 45-24 in an entertaining game. Little else could be expected when the Fijian back-line included the sevens great Waisale Serevi playing 15s.
Scotland comfortably beat Samoa 35-20 to complete the quarter-final play-offs. The winners had only three days to recover before the quarter-finals, in which none of them, inevitably, were successful.
3. Five drop-goals from Jannie de Beer
It seems the drop-goal is going slightly out of fashion. When presented with an advantage in the opposition 22, teams are now more likely to attempt a risky try-scoring play, rather than sit deep in the pocket, spin it back and pop over the three points.
For example, Owen Farrell, at the age of 27, has only scored three drop-goals in Test rugby. Jonny Wilkinson scored 36.
Yet in the 1999 quarter-final against England, South Africa’s Jannie de Beer scored five drop-goals in 32 minutes. Wilkinson may be the kick’s most famous proponent, but it was with de Beer, against the Englishman, that the skill reached its zenith.
One of the most remarkable aspects of de Beer’s excellence is the absurdly consistent length of his efforts. All but the fourth were struck from around the ten-metre line.
The fifth was almost cruel, sailing so high that Matt Perry, running back between his own posts in a vain attempt to gather, was reduced to craning his neck upwards, as if waiting for a deliverance that would never come.
4. France v New Zealand… how about that comeback
There was once a time when the All Blacks had a reputation for choking in the final stages of World Cup tournaments – after all, before 2011 they’d failed to win it for 24 years.
After a close loss to a destiny-laden South African team in 1995, the 1999 edition would surely see them persevere. Their team combined the older stalwarts of Josh Kronfeld and Andrew Mehrtens with possibly the greatest combination of outside backs to ever play together, in the form of Jonah Lomu, Christian Cullen, Tana Umaga and Jeff Wilson.
Yet they were thwarted by that most French of French performances, a beguilingly beautiful beating. Christophe Lamaison’s early try, created by the jinking Christophe Dominici, seemed a flash in the pan, offering only temporary resistance against the All Black wave.
New Zealand accelerated into the lead in identical manner to the England game, as Lomu scored a double to raise his tally in World Cup semi-finals to six tries in two appearances. Holding a 14-point lead, surely New Zealand would hold on to reach a second successive final?
The drop-goal once again came to the fore, as two Lamaison efforts changed the momentum of the game. He kicked two more quick penalties and soon after speculatively chipped for Dominici. The diminutive winger pounced, and suddenly, inexplicably, les Bleus were in the lead.
But Lamaison wasn’t done. Once more he chipped, once more the famed New Zealand backfield hesitated, and once more France scored, this time through Richard Dourthe. France were 12 points up, and although the two teams would trade tries, the French would hold on for an improbable 43-31 victory.
5. A final graced by Gregan
The game at Cardiff’s Millenium Stadium was, for most people not named Owen Finegan, a fairly unexciting event. France seemed stifled after the joie de vivre of the previous round left them with a shot at actually winning the world title.
Australia had openly admitted to expecting a New Zealand triumph in the semi-final, and whilst some teams may have become complacent in their relief, for the Wallabies it was a liberating feeling.
The game was physical and niggly, but it was lit up by one piece of individual brilliance, a criminally unsung moment. Truth be told, it could be claimed as the most impressive skill ever displayed in a World Cup final, and it came from Australia’s evergreen scrum-half George Gregan.
To set the scene, Australia had the game almost won. They were 28-12 up with 15 minutes to go, but against the French who knew. Presented with a lineout on the opposition ten-metre line, many scrum-halves would have settled for a territorial kick or set up a simple crash ball. Not Gregan.
In a brilliant set play, upon receiving the ball, Gregan floated towards the back of the lineout, seemingly without purpose. Finegan, looping round from the front of the lineout, suddenly sharpened on an inside line. This forced Arnaud Costes to make a decision but, with the lineout surrounding them, it seemed academic.
But Gregan suspended the ball behind his back as if performing a conjuror’s trick, just attracting the crowd’s eyes long enough for him to flick it on the reverse to an onrushing Finegan. The replacement flanker crashed over and the Webb Ellis Cup was secured.
Yes, it came in an anticlimactic game, yes, it probably had no bearing on the result, but yes, it was the greatest flair ever seen in world rugby’s biggest game. We remember matches through moments and in Gregan’s pass, we had one to savour.
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