In the beginning
September 8, 2011
New Zealand captain David Kirk lifted the William Webb Ellis cup after victory over France in the final in 1987 © Getty Images
As New Zealand embarks on hosting its second World Cup, it is natural to look back to the first - and first played anywhere - co-hosted with Australia back in 1987.
That tournament too began on a Friday, 22 May, with the All Blacks playing at Eden Park, Auckland. The similarities do not, though, go a great deal further than that. The match kicked off at 3pm and, perhaps unsurprisingly on a working day, attracted a crowd of only 20,000.
Far from the broadcasters holding the sway that has driven international games into New Zealand into TV-friendly evening slots, the rights deal for the tournament was only concluded 30 minutes before Australian referee Bob Fordham blew his whistle for All Black outside-half Grant Fox to kick off.
Players still had jobs. Marzio Innocenti, leading visitors Italy, was a doctor. Andy Dalton, who would have captained New Zealand had he been fit, was a farmer - and was captioned as such in television advertisements for motor mowers, his more singular distinction omitted from the ads in order to fit in with regulations on amateurism.
And perhaps the greatest contrast was in the preparation, or lack of it, of the teams. It has become a truism to describe the 1987 All Blacks as professionals taking on amateurs, but there were still strong elements of older ways. It is hard to impossible to imagine any team, never mind New Zealand, going into a World Cup without having played a match for 6 months, but that was the position of the All Blacks, whose last international outing had been a still-remembered 16-3 beasting by the French in Nantes the previous November.
Three of the All Black starting XV - fullback John Gallagher, prop Richard Loe and open side flanker Michael Jones - were making their test debuts, although Jones had played the year before for Western Samoa against Wales. Others such as outside-half Grant Fox (one cap), No.8 Wayne Shelford (two) and hooker Sean Fitzpatrick (four) were international novices in a team whose inexperience reflected not only the change of generations accompanying the rise in 1986 of the 'Baby Blacks', but also how little test rugby was played compared to nowadays.
This perhaps helped account for a now largely forgotten opening in which the All Blacks stuttered, fumbled and looked anything but potential world champions. When they finally found some shape the opening score was an odd one, with Innocenti diving into the All Black back row to prevent a pushover at a scrum and ensuring that the first ever World Cup points would come from a penalty try.
The first conventional try took half an hour and was claimed by Jones, already clearly offering something unprecedented in the way of open-side flankers and destined also to score the first try of the 1991 tournament, while New Zealand's first-half scoring was completed by the man who would lift the trophy just over four weeks later, scrum-half David Kirk.
The All Blacks led 17-3 at half-time, outside-half Oscar Collodo's 40 metre drop from a tap penalty getting the Italians on the scoresheet just before the break. Collodo added a penalty a minute into the second half, but the rest was a steady flow of All Black tries - in the 43rd, 49th, 54th and 60th minutes - that turned into a deluge in the closing stages.
In the 68th minute Shelford drove towards the Italian line, Fox and Kirk handled and Kirwan went over in the corner. Fox converted, Italy kicked off and then came the moment that everybody remembers from this match.
Kirk caught the ball deep in his own 25 and passed to Fox who found Kirwan. The winger was a good 90 metres from the Italian line, but ran down the middle of the pitch and through the entire Italian team, with barely a hand laid on him, in a manner that reminded New Zealand writer Spiro Zavos of a downhill skier :"The Italian players seemed to be rooted to the ground like poles, with Kirwan racing through and past them, his knees pumping high and his blond hair ruffled in the wind".
It is remembered rightly as one of the great solo tries of all time. Less remembered is the coda. The Italian kick-off went straight to touch. Kirk rapidly gathered and took a quick line-out that sent Kirwan once more storming towards the Italian line. Getting there would have completed one of the quickest and most astonishing hat-tricks of all time. He didn't quite get there, but instead passed back inside for Kirk to claim his own second try of the afternoon.
Two more scores rounded off New Zealand's afternoon, with both 70-6 and 12 tries new records for matches involving major rugby nations. But the Italian journalist Luciano Ravagnani was undoubtedly right to report that his team had 'conceded 70 points, but without losing respect'.
Italy were certainly not demoralised. They battled hard against Argentina in their next match, only going down to a 25-16 defeat in the final few minutes, then rounded off their matches by beating Fiji 18-15. Midway through the second half they led 18-6 and with another try would have taken the islanders' place in the quarter-finals. Instead it was the Fijians who claimed a score, and with it a memorable match against France at Eden Park.
Kirk was to recall: "It was a relief to get out and play that first match, but also a great fulfilment of expectation. We were hungry and grateful it had come around". Fourteen of the men who played against Italy were also in the XV that beat France in the final at Eden Park on June 20th, the sole change being the late John Drake displacing Loe at prop.
The All Blacks were given a momentum that would last long after Kirk was handed the trophy as captain of far the most convincing of all World Cup winning teams. They did not lose to anybody until 1990, when their 23-match unbeaten run was ended by Australia, and would not lose to another single-nation team - there were defeats by a World XV in 1992 and the Lions a year later - until England beat them at Twickenham in November 1993.
Italy might on the evening of 22nd May 1987 have hoped that they would not see Kirwan again. Instead it was to see a lot of him. He was to play there, meet and marry an Italian and to bring up children whose passports and first language are Italian.
Eventually he coached Italy in the Six Nations, establishing a tradition maintained by current incumbent Nick Mallett that whether or not the Azzurri are winning matches, their coach is the most interesting and quotable in the competition.
But most of all, those of us privileged to be among that 20,000 at Eden Park that day in 1987, knew that we had seen history made and that rugby would never be quite the same again.
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
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