The greatest World Cup teams
October 27, 2011
Argentina's Agustin Pichot celebrates their third placed finish in 2007 © Getty Images
5 - Argentina 2007
The greatest team at a World Cup is not necessarily the one that wins. South Africa deserved to win in 2007, but Argentina made a still more meaningful impact. The run by Agustin Pichot's Pumas to the semi-finals subverted the game's apparently unshakeably established order and forced a change in its structures, making their Tri-Nations application unrejectable. Cast for the third tournament running as opening match fodder - good enough to ensure a decent contest, but unlikely to upset the hosts - they wrecked the script by proving much more at home in Paris than the French, a performance reprised with joyous brio in the third place match. Fans who already knew Pichot and half-back partner Juan Martin Hernandez were still more enthused by ageless hooker Mario Ledesma, number eight Gonzalo Longo and full-back Ignacio Corleto. The ejection of Ireland and Scotland was followed by a disappointing semi-final display against the Boks, but by then the Pumas were already the team of the tournament.
4 - England 2003
When a team breaks the southern hemisphere monopoly by beating the hosts and holders in the final, greatness is hard to deny. Jonny Wilkinson's extra-time drop-goal at Sydney was the culmination of two years when England truly bestrode the game, the talents of a gifted but gnarled squad finally harnessed by freethinking coach Clive Woodward, who as veteran prop Jason Leonard said was 'very good at challenging preconceptions and making you think about the way you do things' The only team to win the Cup when in visible decline, albeit from the immensely high peak of victories in Dublin, Wellington and Melbourne earlier in the year, they were perhaps the astutest practitioners of tournament realpolitik in Cup history, a team who knew how to win even when struggling. And after the four unfeasibly presentable young men who had previously lifted the trophy there was at last a winning captain, Martin Johnson, who really looked like a rugby player.
3 - New Zealand 1995
No they didn't win and both posterity and Hollywood reckon their South African hosts and conquerors the most memorable of all World Cup winners. But these All Blacks are rugby's answer to football's 1954 Hungarians, perhaps the greatest but for a single narrow defeat. This was New Zealand rugby on the turn, with dash and invention replacing austerity. Giant wing Jonah Lomu was the sort of weapon that inspires non-proliferation treaties, scorer of four tries in the semi-final demolition of England, the problems of marking him summed up by Wales's Mark Proctor 'I got close to try and tackle before he got going - and discovered he could sidestep as well', while omnipresent flanker Josh Kronfeld was the consummate linkman and move-enabler. They dazzled fans and opponents alike, and continued to do so in the first three years of professional test rugby. There was just that one defeat, taken with singular grace
2 - Australia 1991
Australia's two winning teams had much in common, not least the prodigious talents of John Eales at lock. They were smart, resilient and incredibly efficient users of the Australian game's limited resources. But the 1991 team has the edge over the victors of 1999. The incomparable David Campese, described by Wanda Jamroszik as 'rugby's equivalent of quantum physics - he's there, he's not there, he's atomic' gave them a touch of magic epitomised by an incredible opening score to spark one of the best halves played by any World Cup team as New Zealand were overthrown in the semi. No winning team has faced a more acute crisis, or extracted itself with icier aplomb, than they did in scoring a try to order to defeat the inspired Irish in the Dublin quarter-final. After beating England at Twickenham in the final, captain Nick Farr-Jones tried to have their triumphant bus-ride through Sydney cancelled, fearing nobody would turn up. One hundred thousand, recognising greatness, came to acclaim them.
1 - New Zealand 1987
The original and still the best, World Cup champions. No team ever stood higher above its contemporaries. They had an edge in preparation and fitness, but still more in skill and attitude, winning every match by at least 20 points at a time when such margins were much rarer. Put this pack, highlighted by wonderful open side Michael Jones and the driving power of number eight Wayne 'Buck' Shelford together with their 1995 back division, and they might challenge a Rest of the World All Time XV. They were fast, dynamic, powerful and above all remorseless. As Colin Deans, captain of a Scotland team that held out longer than most, said :"We tackled and tackled and tackled, until we couldn't tackle any more. And still they came at us." Nor were the backs bad - with Grant Fox the greatest points machine yet seen and John Kirwan a true immortal on the wing. Victory was a beginning not an end, starting a run of 24 tests unbeaten, with only a single draw.
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