History repeating itself
October 12, 2011
John Kirwan in action back in 1987 © Getty Images
So now we know - history really does repeat itself. The coming weekend will see the World Cup semi-finals take place with an identical cast, though differently paired, to the same stage as the first ever tournament back in 1987.
Then it was Australia v France and New Zealand v Wales. As a quartet they were perhaps a little less unexpected than in 2011. Australia and New Zealand were co-hosts and widely expected also to be the finalists. France were coming off a Grand Slam and while Wales had not had a happy Five Nations campaign, nobody was very surprised that they had overcome England 16-3 in a quarter-final of such shocking quality that it provoked RFU president Alan Grimsdell to conclude that 'enough is enough' and begin the reform process that was to lift England from the lower reaches of the international game.
Australia had disposed routinely of Ireland 33-15 while the All Blacks had seen off Scotland 30-3, but not before the Scots, the one home nation to have made a truly positive impression, had stayed in contention for an hour. The really memorable quarter-final, at Eden Park, Auckland, had seen France given an immense scare before squeezing past Fiji 31-16 thanks to the application of brute force close to the islanders' line and Severo Koroduadua's immortal fumble, squeezing the ball from his own grasp as he charged towards an undefended French line with it clutched in one large hand.
As in the English-hosted tournament in 1991 and Wales's World Cup in 1999, the semi-finals went elsewhere. While New Zealand was the main host, staging the opening match and final plus three of the four groups and two quarter-finals, the semi-final was the one round in which attention truly switched to Australia.
What transpired was two contests memorable for different reasons - one the first truly great World Cup tie, in doubt until the final minute, the other an unadulterated massacre that was over almost as soon as it started.
Australia had been marginal pre-tournament favourites. They were slick, talented and coached by the hugely articulate Alan Jones, who had led them on a first ever 'Grand Slam' tour of Britain and Ireland in 1984. But by this time there were tensions between him and his squad as he attempted to combine his coaching duties with work as a talk radio host while demanding that players, while still amateurs with jobs of their own, give the tournament their undivided commitment. Full-back Roger Gould remembered him as the greatest coach he had ever known, but 'simply not somebody you could spend a lot of time with, and after four years, the team had just had jack of him.'
He would, for the first time in his players experience, be left speechless by a match of which Daily Telegraph veteran John Reason wrote :"I never thought I would live to see a game to rival the one played between the Barbarians and the All Blacks at Cardiff in 1973, but this one did".
It had seemed to follow expectation in the first half as Australia built a nine-point lead through the boot of Michael Lynagh. Reason reckoned that it was a try by outstanding French lock Alain Lorieux, wrestling line-out ball away from opposite number Troy Coker, that turned the match. It cut the Australia interval lead to 9-6 and laid the ground for an extraordinary second half in which France twice took the lead, only to be overtaken again on each occasion by the Wallabies. If ever there was a match to disprove the ridiculous, but still widely held, belief that French teams become disheartened when they go behind, this was it. With tries for France by centre Philippe Sella and wing Patrick Lagisquet balanced out by scores from wing David Campese and flanker David Codey, Australia still led 24-21 into the final stages, but France levelled again when Didier Camberabero landed a penalty.
Then came the supreme moment as France attacked from their own 25. Peter FitzSimons estimates that 13 Frenchmen handled, while spectator Spiro Zavos was reminded of 'Napoleon's Old Guard making their last challenge at the Battle of Waterloo'. Twice possession was almost lost, but the move went on and on and culminated in magnificent full-back Serge Blanco, the Venezuelan-born personification of French flair, diving over in the corner.
It is a matter for debate whether any of the five World Cups since completed, or the one still underway in New Zealand, has seen a better match or a better try. Yet it was watched, in evidence that some things have changed in World Cups since 1987, by a crowd of fewer than 18,000 at Sydney's suburban Concord Oval.
There were more spectators, but much less of a contest, at Lang Park, Brisbane the following day, June 14 1987. New Zealand had thundered into the semis with a remorseless style memorably captured by Scotland captain Colin Deans after their brave resistance had finally been broken in the quarter-final:"We tackled and tackled and tackled, until we couldn't tackle any more. And still they came at us".
Wales were missing five first-choice forwards, but scrum-half Robert Jones - their best performer at the tournament, recalled that 'we honestly thought we could beat them in a one-off match'. That optimism was destroyed within a few minutes, as New Zealand scored two early tries and kept up the pressure.
Jones remembered:"It is an extraordinary experience to play against a team which is so much better than you. Within a couple of minutes we were in awe of them. They were so dominant in every phase of the game…we were simply overwhelmed…Coaches always talked about 'playing for 80 minutes'and these All Blacks came closer to doing it than any team I ever played against. They never let up."
In the end the eight-try, 49-6 margin, failing by a single point to displace South Africa's 44-0 defeat of Scotland in 1951 as the largest margin between established rugby nations, came almost as a relief. John Devereux claimed a second-half try for Wales while number eight Wayne 'Buck' Shelford and wing John Kirwan each crossed twice for the All Blacks.
Shelford also played a part in the incident that has earned the match a permanent place in the record books, the first ever World Cup sending-off. Wales lock Huw Richards (the answer to the question some readers will ask is no) struck opposite number Gary Whetton and was promptly chinned by the powerful Shelford.
Rising unsteadily to his feet after lengthy treatment Richards was informed by referee Kerry Fitzgerald that he had been sent off - the end not only of his World Cup, but of his international career. Reason was not alone in his belief that Shelford should have walked as well, but the organisers made their view clear by appointing Fitzgerald, an Australian, to the following week's final.
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