Larkham 'fluke' downs World Cup holders
October 30, 1999
Stephen Larkham's famous drop-goal against South Africa
© Getty Images
Rugby World Cup 1999 arrived at semi-finals weekend desperately needing a contest to grab the public's attention and show that results don't always follow the form. In the event, two great matches were served up at Twickenham on successive days. Sunday's dramatic turnaround that saw France dump New Zealand out of the cup sticks in the memories of aficionados, but for 24 hours this first semi-final was the match of the tournament, and it remains a classic regardless of the upset the next day.
Those present knew they were privileged to see 100 minutes of brilliant rugby, such that there was no shame in defeat. Coach Nick Mallett's pride in his Springbok team was evident in the aftermath: "There are two ways to be disappointed," he explained. "You can be disappointed because you didn't do yourself justice or you can be disappointed because the result went against you. Both teams played well and the result went against us."
World Cup holders South Africa reached the semi-final thanks to Jannie de Beer's five drop goals in Paris against England. de Beer's retention in the side in preference to the fit-again first choice fly-half Henry Honiball indicated that South Africa would employ similar tactics. They did, but this time four of de Beer's five drop goal attempts missed and South Africa lost after extra time, ironically to a drop goal.
Australia, 1991 winners, were marginal underdogs for this game but it was hard to find a weak link in the team. South Africa looked to exploit the relative inexperience of Stephen Larkham, de Beer's opposite number, whose early international career had been played at full back. Outside Larkham were experienced, creative backs, as strong in defence as in attack and evenly matched with their opponents.
No tries were scored in this edge-of-the-seat match. Australia created the better opportunities, mainly through Tim Horan, for whom this was a career defining performance. Matt Burke tore through a gap early on, fed the ball via Horan to Ben Tune who was held up short of the line and Australia had to settle for the resulting penalty. Time and again Horan slipped a couple of tackles, but the Boks always found another tackler from somewhere to stop him.
Springbok captain and scrum half Joost van der Westhuizen was at the peak of his powers but could not conjure a way past the Aussies. One outrageous dummy on the half hour almost led to a try but they didn't come close again.
So even was the battle in open play that the points had to come from the boots of Burke and de Beer, who finally landed a drop goal early in the second half to level the scores at 12-12.
South Africa's belief and sheer bloody-mindedness kept the Aussies from finding the try line. Robbie Fleck's desperate cover tackle saved a near certain try after Horan had broken through Andre Venter and wrong-footed Percy Montgomery. Australia had to settle for three points instead.
Australia's Tim Horan breaks away from the Springbok defence © PA Photos
As time began to run out, referee Derek Bevan made some questionable decisions. Most baffling, however, was where he found six minutes of added time after the stadium announcer had declared two minutes would be added. Australia, now 18-15 ahead, conceded a penalty and de Beer calmly took the game to extra time.
Level again at 21-21 in the second half of extra time, it would take something special to separate the teams. Larkham, not renowned for his kicking prowess and struggling with a badly injured left leg, found enough space to attempt an enormously ambitious drop goal from 48 metres out. It sailed between the posts as he and his team-mates danced an astonished jig. Burke added another penalty in the remaining four minutes but it was Larkham's audacious swing of the boot that dashed Springbok hopes of retaining the World Cup.
Jannie de Beer never played for South Africa again. Australia went on to beat France 35-12 in the final a week later and became the first team to win the Rugby World Cup twice. Tim Horan was Player of the Tournament. Stephen Larkham retired in 2007 with 102 Wallaby caps and only two international drop goals. He described this one, the pivotal moment of the 1999 World Cup, as "only a fluke".
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