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Martin Johnson lifts the William Webb Ellis trophy in 2003. England captain Martin Johnson lifts the William Webb Ellis Cup after England defeated Australia 20-17 in 2003.

A story of greatness: the Rugby World Cup through the years

From its inception, the Rugby World Cup has continued to grow in expectation and popularity. Here we look back at the moments that have created a legacy.

As the 105-year-old Gil Evans whistle blows to mark the start of the seventh IRB Rugby World Cup, it will be yet another entry for the history books. From its beginnings in 1987, the Rugby World Cup has grown to take centre stage among the world’s biggest sporting spectacles. The 20 teams competing across New Zealand in 2011 will showcase the game’s strength and global appeal, with countries such as Canada, Japan and Romania sharing the limelight with traditional big guns including the All Blacks, England, France and the Aussies.

This year’s tournament, hosted by a nation that cherishes rugby not so much as a sport but more so a religion, will no doubt create its own heroes and villains. But what about those who’ve gone before? The past six World Cups have thrown up their fair share of drama, delight and shocks. Here, we look back at some of these moments as we recount the story of one of the greatest shows on earth.

1987: Creating a legacy - New Zealand 29-9 France

The first ever Rugby World Cup was held in New Zealand in 1987 with Australia as co-hosts. In the lead up to the tournament, rugby union was in a period of upheaval, standing on the threshold of professionalism, with many nations struggling against the tide. The game’s staunch amateur status had previously prevented the establishing of a World Cup but now, for the first time, national teams had the chance to officially become ‘world champions’. For the mighty All Blacks, this was their chance to finally prove their excellence on the world stage. With 16 invited teams, this celebration of the sport produced its share of classic players, though with greats such as Sean Fitzpatrick, John Kirwan and Grant Fox in the New Zealand ranks, the final destination of the Webb Ellis Cup seemed inevitable. The hosts defeated France to win their first, and as yet only, World Cup, with halfback David Kirk captaining them to victory.

1991: Back where it all began - Australia 12-6 England

The Rugby World Cup cemented its place on the international sporting calendar with its second outing in 1991. The tournament was hosted by England, with a number of matches played in Scotland, Ireland and Wales, and attracted a television audience of 1.75 billion viewers from 103 countries. It was also the first one not featuring invitation participation. Instead, 8 of the 16 countries were decided by a qualifying tournament, with 35 teams taking part. On the pitch, one of the greatest World Cup shocks to date occurred when minnows Western Samoa defeated their pool opponents and overwhelming favourites Wales, 16-13, in front of a shocked crowd at Cardiff Arms Park. In the semi-final, Australia knocked out confident neighbours and defending champions New Zealand to book a place in the final against hosts England. Winger David Campese was instrumental in the Wallabies’ march to victory, eventually winning Player of the Tournament after the 12-6 victory.

1995: A fairy-tale ending - South Africa 15-12 New Zealand

South Africa’s tenure as hosts held extra significance as the country was playing in its first ever World Cup following the end of the apartheid regime and accompanying international sports boycott. In a campaign that Hollywood writers could have scripted (and later did!), the Springboks progressed through the tournament beating the likes of Australia, Canada and France along the way, to claim the title much to the joy of South Africa president Nelson Mandela and 63,000 enraptured supporters. Springbok captain Francois Pienaar accepted the trophy from President Mandela in what is to this day one of sport’s most memorable moments. One of the top performers in this first World Cup of the professional era was New Zealand’s Jonah Lomu, who famously scored four tries in the All Blacks’ semi-final against England.

1999: Rumble in the valleys - Australia 35-12 France

It was back to the northern hemisphere for the last tournament of the twentieth century, with Wales hosting rugby’s showpiece, and matches also held at other locations in the UK, Ireland and France. The qualifying nations reflected the sport’s ever-increasing popularity with the number of participating teams rising to 20 from 16 four years earlier. The closest the men in red came to final honours, however, was a quarter-final exit at the hands of eventual champions, Australia. The Wallabies powered through the pool and knock-out stages to overcome France in the final at the Millennium Stadium and become the first country to win the title twice. Before that, however, France overcame the mighty New Zealand in a match many refer to as the ‘greatest in World Cup history’. Trailing 24-10 seven minutes into the second half of their semi-final, France staged a fantastic comeback, stunning the All Blacks with a 43-31 victory.

2003: The mighty England roar - England 20-17 Australia

As the 2003 World Cup kicked off on 10 October, Australia, the hosts and defending world champions were looking to extend their reign on home territory, but the grand plan was not to be. This World Cup was all about the English, led by Sir Clive Woodward and Captain Fantastic, Martin Johnson. Playing out a dramatic conclusion to the tournament, the Australia-England final was a nail-biter of the highest order. The strains of “Swing low, sweet chariot” rang around Sydney’s Telstra Stadium as the atmosphere simmered. Despite Australia opening the scoring courtesy of a Lote Tuqiri try, it was Sir Clive’s men who dominated the first 40 minutes, running up a 14-5 half-time lead. England were bolstered by the performances of captain Johnno, Matt Dawson, Ben Cohen, Neil Back, Will Greenwood, Lawrence Dallaglio, Phil Vickery and the ever-dangerous Johnny Wilkinson.

The action was end-to-end after the break, but neither side managed to cross the whitewash. Two penalties ensured Australia remained within touching distance, however, with the score standing at 14-11. Then, in the 79th minute of normal time, the Wallabies were granted a controversial penalty, which inside centre Elton Flatley slotted between the posts to take the game right to the wire. All square. Extra time.

With 20 minutes left to decide the destination of rugby’s ultimate prize, it was all to play for. A Wilkinson penalty gave England a three-point cushion, which they held until just two and a half minutes before the final whistle. As the clock wound down, Australia were awarded a penalty, and once again, the teams were tied. Then, just 26 seconds from the end of extra time, and with a sudden-death finish beckoning, a breathtaking Wilkinson drop goal sailed over the bar to snatch victory and close another unforgettable chapter in the annals of the World Cup. After a dramatic 100 minutes, England stood at the summit as world champions—the first Northern hemisphere nation to achieve the feat—on one of the most memorable days in English rugby history. The dream was reality and from November 22, 2003, Sir Clive’s heroes were living legends.

2007: Unstoppable Springboks - South Africa 16-5 England

France assumed hosting duties for the 2007 tournament, and not only was much of the rugby of the Champagne variety with shock results and talking points galore, this instalment was officially the most successful World Cup to date, with a global television audience above four billion over the 48 matches. Among the stand-out performers were Argentina, who shocked the hosts France in the opening match, beating them 17-12 and later topping their group. The Pumas would again defeat the French to eventually claim third place in the event overall. After getting their initial campaign back on track, France shocked pre-tournament favourites New Zealand with a 20-18 quarter-final win—the All Blacks’ worst ever World Cup finish. Other notable casualties included Ireland, Italy and Wales, none of whom advanced past the pool stages. The climax of rugby’s premier event took place on Saturday October 20 at Stade de France, with incumbent champions England facing a tough and highly organised South Africa, who had thrashed them 36-0 earlier in the tournament. In front of a stadium audience of 80,430, the Springboks defeated Brian Ashton’s English side to claim the Webb Ellis Cup for the second time.

Did you know?

Legendary New Zealand flanker Michael Jones scored the first try of the first World Cup. He also went on to score the opening try of the second World Cup in 1991!

Did you know?

England’s Jonny Wilkinson is the only player ever to have scored points in two World Cup finals, with 15 in 2003 and 6 in 2007.