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Rugby Union
Jonny Wilkinson tackles Australian Matt Giteau during the 2007 Rugby World Cup
Jonny Wilkinson tackles Australian Matt Giteau during the 2007 Rugby World Cup

The Greatest Rivalry in Rugby World Cup History

Who are the greatest rivals in Rugby World Cup history? England and Australia must top the bill, with team rivals and rebels constantly battling one another. An assessment by Oliver Pickup

ENGLAND and Australia have a long and bitter rivalry across all sports, but it is felt most sharply in rugby—and in particular at the Rugby World Cup. At present, with the boot of Jonny Wilkinson giving Wallabies players nightmares in their sleep, it is England, the Red Rose, who currently hold the bragging rights.    


Watch out for Wilko

It was, of course, the then 24-year-old fly-half who kicked 15 points—including the winning drop-kick in extra time—in the 20-17 victory over Australia on 22 November, 2003, at the Telstra Stadium, Sydney; a victory which allowed Martin Johnson to lift the Webb Ellis Trophy for the first time in English history.

Four years later Wilkinson was up to his old antics against the Wallabies again, when he laced all 12 points in the 12-10 quarter final success at Stade Vélodrome, Marseille—a game in which his opposition kicker, Australian captain Stirling Mortlock, missed three penalty shots. England went on to reach their second consecutive World Cup Final, and their antipodean foes were left to nurse their wounded pride once more.

Leading up to the 2011 World Cup, too, England have had the edge over Australia, following a 21-20 win in Sydney in June last year—their first Down Under since 2003, and again Wilkinson kicked the winning points with his trusty left foot. Not to mention 35-18 mauling at Twickenham last November.

Read More: A Story of Greatness: the Rugby World Cup through the years

Australian leaders

But it wasn’t always so—at previous World Cups the boot was firmly on the other foot, and Wallabies full-back and winger David Campese was the arch villain-in-chief. “Campo” made up the so-called “holy trinity” in Australian rugby in the 1980s and 1990s, alongside scrum-half and skipper Nick Farr-Jones and fly-half Michael Lynagh.

In the inaugural World Cup Campese’s team took on England in the first Pool 1 game at the Concord Oval in Sydney, and 11 minutes into the second half the 25-year-old was awarded a try by referee Keith Lawrence, when he had obviously knocked the ball on. The Red Rose players were paralysed by the injustice, never recovered and lost 19-7.

With the unconventional and unpredictable Campese, who scored 64 tries in his 101 Tests, the Aussies were a fearful team, but in the semi-final they came up against another master of the counter-attack in France’s Serge Blanco. Les Bleus’ No.15 turned the game at 24-24 in the second half with one of the best tries in World Cup history, gliding over after a flowing move which saw the ball switch between forwards and backs. France went on to win 30-24 but lost in the final to the all mighty All Blacks.

Read More: Interview with England Prop Andrew Sheridan

In 1991, however, Campese was at the peak of his powers—and his pomp—and scored six tries in the World Cup, was named player of the tournament and, later, world player of the year. The boy from Queanbeyan, Canberra, started the tournament with intent to impress and crossed twice against Argentina, and then once more in the final pool game against Wales. He then scored two tries to help the Wallabies edge out Ireland 19-18 and in the semi-final against the reigning champions, New Zealand, Campo scored the first try before laying on the second for Tim Horan with a magical flick pass in the tackle to take his team to the Final, where England, who had defeated Scotland in the other, tryless, semi final, were waiting.

Campese baited the English by saying: “Playing that sort of boring rugby stuff is a good way to destroy the image of the game.” His winding-up tactics worked and the Red Rose changed their game plan, which helped Australia to a 12-6 win and their first World Cup title.

In 1995 the sides met again in the quarter final at Newlands in Cape Town, and when fly-half Rob Andrew kicked an injury-time drop-goal to secure the 25-22 win England’s players were ecstatic to have finally downed the mouthy Campese and his team.


Rise of the Newcomer

After England’s players delighted in defeating Australia, they came up against another winger in their next game, who was to prove just as much of a menace. Jonah Lomu was only 20 when he burst on to the World Cup scene, and the 6ft 5in paceman had already scored three tries in the tournament. But it was against England he really announced his arrival.

He crossed four times and sprinted, bounced and barged his way through the Red Rose defence, who had no idea what had hit them on the way to a 45-29 defeat. Images of Rory Underwood and Rob Andrew being swatted away by the Auckland-born Lomu have been etched into World Cup memory.

Everyone expected the All Blacks, propelled by this seeming force of nature, would go on and win the World Cup, but hosts South Africa pipped them at the post thanks to Joel Stransky’s extra-time drop-goal in the 15-12 win. It was an emotional scene as skipper Francois Pienaar received the Webb Ellis trophy from Nelson Mandela, he himself wearing the Springboks shirt and baseball hat.


Double Trouble

Another Australian, John Eales, deserves a mention as he was pivotal to the Wallabies’ World Cup successes in 1991, when he was only 21, and in 1999, when he was captain of the winning side who defeated France 35-12 at Cardiff’s Millennium Stadium.

Having begun the 1991 campaign at No.8 Eales was soon moved to lock and it proved a masterstroke. In the final against England he made a try-saving tackle against Rob Andrew, which—had he missed—would have changed the whole completion of the game. When he lifted the Webb Ellis trophy eight years later, he became only one of six men to have won the World Cup twice, along with fellow Wallabies Dan Crowley, Jason Little, Phil Kearns and Tim Horan, and South African prop Os du Randt.