Gerry Thornley: Memories of covering six Rugby World Cups
With the vagaries of a knock-out format for the final eight, the best team does not necessarily win
New Zealand captain Richie McCaw holding the Webb Ellis Cup in 2011. Photograph: Photosport
With each passing four years World Cups assume more and more importance. Once upon a time they were locked away in cold storage. Nowadays, a bit like US elections, one has no sooner finished than the campaigning for the next one seems to begin.
In truth, looking back over them they have been a bit of a mixed bag, not least for Ireland, and not always a ground-breaking vision of a bright new future for the game either. But they’ve become bigger than anything else in the game, even a championship that’s over a century older.
Part of this, perhaps, is because New Zealand had to wait 24 years to add to the victory in the inaugural tournament. This also shows that, with the vagaries of a knock-out format for the final eight, the best team needn’t necessarily win out every time, which is perhaps just as well. Otherwise the All Blacks might have won five or six of the previous eight editions.
As it is having become the first country to retain the William Webb Ellis trophy four years ago, they’re favourites again to lift it for the third time running.
Someone in The Irish Times thought it would be a good idea for this reporter to recall my five World Cups as this paper’s rugby correspondent. But the best, in some respects, was the 1991 tournament.
Being the number two corr was much better fun. You weren’t embedded, as it were, with all things Irish, which is no bad thing in itself, but it meant you got to see more of the other games.
Due to the bartering in World Rugby it literally was all over the place, held in 18 different venues as five different countries – ie Ireland, England, Wales, Scotland and France – had a different slice of the cake.
Being stationed in Wales for the entire group stages meant covering the best pool – Australia, Western Samoa (as they were then known), Wales and Argentina. Every game was played in front of packed stadiums beginning in, of all places, Stradey Park in front of an 11,000 capacity crowd.
There Australia were stretched by an Argentina team full of footwork, inventive running and passing but didn’t have the physical firepower they would start to demonstrate from 1999 onwards.
Two days later Wales hosted Western Samoa at the Arms Park in their World Cup debut. Back then World Rugby’s eligibility laws were even looser and the Pacific Islanders were more like a New Zealand B or C team.
Frank Bunce was winning the first of four caps for Western Samoa before going on to play 55 times for the All Blacks. Some bloke called Pat Lam, then 23, was also making his debut. Brian Lima, then 19, was playing in the first of his astonishing five World Cups.
Western Samoa’s deserved win prompted that infamous quip by one Welsh supporter: “Thank heavens we weren’t playing the whole of Samoa.”
Staying in the same hotel as the Samoans, that night Stephen Bachop, brother of the All Blacks scrum-half Graeme and whom I’d known from his time with Blackrock in the All-Ireland League, asked me into the Samoan team room. Different times indeed.
They were re-watching their famous win, but, passing over their two tries, every time Apollo Perelini and Co put in a big hit they’d rewind the video to the regular comment “good hit bro.”
Wales did manage to beat Argentina, but were then knocked out when the Wallabies – with John Eales and Co losing one line-out in the game – eviscerated them 38-3. There were 54,000 in the Arms Park, but the atmosphere was funereal long before the end.
On to, of all places, Pontypridd, and it was almost cruel the way Western Samoa battered the nimble but lighter Pumas in an eventful match.
Watching Ireland’s dramatic defeat to Australia in the quarter-finals from a press tent in a rainy Lille after reporting on New Zealand’s quarter-final win over Canada was surreal. Then, after witnessing Michael Lynagh, the magical David Campese and Co dismantle the All Blacks in the semi-final at Lansdowne Road, it was back to the TV in Dublin when watching Australia’s defence seal the deal as England were goaded into playing a more expansive game at Twickenham.
Wales were the primary hosts in 1999, but again there was a Five Nations trade-off and Ireland’s pool games were all in Lansdowne Road. The highlight was Keith Wood scoring four tries in the win over the USA, before Australia strangled Warren Gatland’s team 22-3 in a precursor of things to come.
Cue that quarter-final play-off against an unfancied Argentina team that was actually the basis of their greatest side ever. That was a long night in Lens. Referee Stuart Dickinson reduced the match to a penalty fest, and Ireland were reduced to unproductive one-off runners in eight minutes of tortuous injury time.
Staying in a hotel, off some roundabout beside a motorway if memory serves, and seeing the Irish bus pull in at the same time, meant remaining in the rented car until everyone had disembarked.
The Pumas moved into Ireland’s hotel but had little left in the tank for a World Cup quarter-final against France just four days later.
On to Twickenham for that semi-final as Jonah Lomu almost singlehandedly beat France, before Fabien Galthie, an inspired Christophe Lamaison, Christophe Dominici and Co turned a 17-10 half-time deficit into a stunning 43-31 win.
Of course, being France, they couldn’t back it up. The brilliantly efficient Wallabies anti-climactically if predictably strangled Les Bleus in the Cardiff final.
Not gonna lie, the 2003 World Cup in Australia wasn’t half bad. Ireland, in their infinite wisdom, prepared for two weeks in Terrigal, a beautiful coastal town south of Sydney. A few of the Irish media pack who stayed until the end also finished off with two weeks overlooking the beach in Manly, a ferry ride past the Opera House north of Sydney. Nope, not half bad.
All roads led to a grudge rematch with Argentina in Adelaide. The Pumas opened the tournament by extending the hosts before Ireland, Argentina and Australia routed Romania and Namibia (beaten 142-0 by the Wallabies in turn) which was a feature of the group stages.
Cue the charming Adelaide Oval, where you could have cut the tension with a scissors. There was Alan Quinlan’s try, rupturing his shoulder in the process, but it still needed the calming influence of Ronan O’Gara off the bench to steer Ireland to a 16-15 win.
Back in Sydney, Ireland missed a trick when losing 17-16 to the hosts despite that dexterous finish by Brian O’Driscoll in the corner from John Kelly’s pass. It condemned them to a quarter-final against an in-form, Freddie Michalak-inspired France in Melbourne, whereas Australia met Scotland in Brisbane.
As O’Driscoll would subsequently admit, Ireland were way too narrow, in defence and attack, as France used the full width of the pitch to devastating effect in motoring into a 37-0 lead early in the second-half before three consolation tries meant a 43-31 defeat.
The Aussie media had been lambasting the Wallabies throughout the tournament, but come the semi-finals Stirling Mortlock picked off a long-range intercept try from Carlos Spencer’s skip pass and led all the way. Whereupon the Aussie media were imploring them to beat England in the final.
Martin Johnson’s vintage team had found their mojo in the Sydney semi-finals, with Jonny Wilkinson the master over young Michalak.
The English team were in the same Manly hotel and come the morning of the final there was that inevitable awkward lift moment when the door opened to Lawrence Dallaglio and some of his teammates. A good game was expected of the Wasps warrior. “I expect one myself,” he said.
He and his team delivered too. It would have been an injustice had that England not won a final poorly refereed by André Watson, and they still required a drop goal by you-know-who in the last minute. Cue Jonnymania.
Still, there was that rare feeling of wanting an English win, and to their eternal credit they remain the only Europeans to break that Southern Hemisphere monopoly.
The 2007 World Cup in France! For anyone there, players, management, media or fans, the mere mention sends a shiver down the spine. Through campsite neighbours in southwest France who lived in Bordeaux, where Ireland were initially based, I’d located a lovely, central hotel around the corner from the five star Intercontinental Bordeaux – Le Grand Hotel, situated on the Place de la Comédie.
Alas the hotel’s refurbishment was not completed in time for the World Cup, and instead the Irish squad stayed out in a hotel on a man-made lake outside Bordeaux which, but for the weather, could have been in Milton Keynes.
Even allowing for the ominous warm-up performances, it was still a shock to see Ireland struggle to beat Namibia and Georgia by 14-10 in the Stade Chaban Delmas, when Denis Leamy prevented a Georgian forward grounding the ball in virtually the last play.
Returning from Ireland’s joyless base to Place de la Comédie from media days during that opening fortnight, grabbing a coffee and a filled baguette, and sitting on the steps of the Grand Theatre while looking across at the almost finished Grand Hotel, before heading back to the hotel to pen another downbeat piece, was less than amusing.
The TGV up to Paris brought only the inevitable defeats by France, themselves low on confidence after losing the opener to Argentina, and the Pumas as three drop goals and a bombardment of up-and-unders from Juan Martín Hernández, aka el Mago, put Ireland out of their misery.
World Rugby being, well, World Rugby, the 2007 World Cup in France took the hosts to Cardiff a week later for the quarter-final that we hoped might feature Ireland but instead seemingly condemned France to an exit against the rampant All Blacks.
However, with their backs against the wall an inspired France won another classic. This time they trailed 13-3 at half-time, before second-half tries by Thierry Dusautoir (36 tackles) and Yannick Jauzion sealed a 20-18 win.
Nobody died, but interviewing All Blacks players in the post-match mixed zone it felt as if someone had, and for the final fortnight hordes of supporters dressed in black shuffled somnolently around the French capital.
After Ireland’s travail, the exciting thought occurred that we could be witness to a French World Cup party on the Champs Elysees. Of course, France being France they’d had their Icarus moment, and lost to an average English side who had lost 36-0 in their pool to the Springboks. To their credit they pushed the Boks, Percy Montgomery’s boot steering Jake White’s side to a tryless, 15-6 win in the final.
But that was a long final week to a long tournament.
There were all manner of concerns about contentiously handing the 2011 tournament to New Zealand ahead of South Africa and Japan; the lack of accommodation, transport infrastructure, stadiums capacity and ground development work falling behind schedule – with New Zealand’s own media leading the way.
After so many June tours in New Zealand’s bleak mid-winter, with 5pm sunsets, the World Cup there was a blast. The organisers did a great job. The brighter September/October weather and the influx of an estimated 133,000 supporters (including a huge Blarney Army) showed up this beautiful country in a different light.
Despite losing all four warm-up matches and unconvincingly beating the USA on a rainy night in New Plymouth, Ireland turned the World Cup upside down by beating Australia in Auckland by 15-6; Stephen Ferris frogmarching Will Genia down the pitch, Conor Murray coming of age as a test scrum-half, O’Gara this time coming on for Johnny Sexton.
In going on to thrash Russia and Italy under the glassed roof in a Dunedin “home” match, Ireland seemed in a very good place for the quarters. Alas so too was Warren Gatland’s uber-confident Welsh side. There was something about their media day that week – and interviewing the mature-beyond-his-years Sam Warburton – which was unnerving.
In windy Wellington, with O’Gara starting ahead of Sexton, a third-minute try by Shane Williams shook Ireland’s belief, and Shaun Edwards chop tackling reduced the influence of Ferris and Seán O’Brien. They fought their way back into the game through a Keith Earls try early in the second quarter, but tries by Mike Phillips and Jonathan Davies left them with too much to do.
That hurt. They were going so well. Drico, Paulie, Fez and Seanie et al were still in their pomp. It could have been Irish rugby’s Italia 90 moment. In the mixed zone afterwards Declan Kidney and the players looked haunted.
Not wanting to come home from New Zealand was a new experience, but no more Celtic Tiger meant no more World Cup for this reporter, who instead watched the semi-finals and final back in Dublin.
France luckily beat Wales after Warburton’s controversial sending off, before the All Blacks luckily beat France 8-7 in the final when they could have committed all manner of offences, and did, but Craig Joubert was not of a mind to penalise them.
Four years ago the optimism was never higher. There was the coming of Joe, those back-to-back Six Nations titles and the presence of Cian Healy, O’Connell, O’Brien, Peter O’Mahony, Jamie Heaslip, Murray, Sexton etc.
Based initially in Cardiff, then north of Birmingham in Burton Wood with the Irish squad before moving on to matches in London, there was plenty of traipsing around and everything was expensive.
Ireland put Canada and Romania away before struggling against Italy in the Olympic Stadium, and then returned to Cardiff to win that bruising pool decider against France.
But at too big a cost before facing another fine rebranded Pumas side who had been plotting for three weeks in games against Georgia, Tonga and Namibia in the Cardiff quarter-final.
Luke Fitzgerald inspired a comeback off the bench after the Pumas twice skinned Ireland out wide in the first 10 minutes. After trailing 20-3, they had an Ian Madigan penalty to draw level before Argentina pulled clear to win 43-20.
Along the way witnessing Wales apply the first killer blow to England in a cracker at Twickenham was truly epic and spine-tingling. We’d also watched nonplussed as Japan shocked South Africa in Brighton, who nevertheless recovered to meet the All Blacks in the semi-final.
That was a proper semi-final war in the Twickenham rain as Dan Carter kept his cool to guide the holders into the final.
Michael Cheika had done wonders in a short time coaching the Wallabies, and they threatened an unlikely comeback in the decider before Carter again steadied the All Blacks with a timely drop goal and Beauden Barrett was introduced to apply the final varnish.
There was something right with the rugby world in seeing McCaw, Ma’a Nonu, Conrad Smith, Kieran Read et al on top of the world, and especially Carter after injuries had ended his 2007 and 2011 tournaments.
It was the highest scoring of the eight finals to date, three of which had been tryless, and by some distance the most fluid.
But all World Cups have their own clear identity and storyline. Japan 2019 should be very different again, and genuinely looks the most open of all.