1991: Fitter, faster England level the playing field

By Peter White

English rugby was hurt by their witless performances at the 1987 World Cup. No doubt about that. By 1991 a new coaching regime under Geoff Cooke had transformed fitness, training and attitudes to new levels so could England compete with New Zealand and Australia?

The opening match of the 1991 tournament against the All Blacks showed the gap had closed. Their redoubtable pack competed well in the set pieces and as one they defended like demons. The All Blacks scored just one try to champion flanker Michael Jones, who also notched up the first individual try in 1987. Yes, it was a win for the All Blacks by 18-12 but they were hardly convincing - a portent of things to come later in the tournament.

Tournament favourites Australia began with a physical tussle against Argentina. Early tries to David Campese and Tim Horan had the Wallabies looking good but they came under some late pressure before the brilliant Campese scored again, then set up Horan for his second try.

But that all paled with what happened at the venerable old Cardiff Arms Park when Wales took on tournament newcomers Western Samoa. Wales expected to win but didn't count on a ferocious defensive effort from the Samoans, led by Brian "the chiropractor" Lima, that sent three Welsh players off injured and terrified the living daylights out of the rest of the team.

Tries to flanker Sila Vaifale and centre To'o Vaega carried the Samoans home to a 16-13 victory still celebrated in Samoa to this day.

The Samoans were not done yet in the World Cup, making further shockwaves by qualifying for the quarter-finals after scoring five tries in beating Argentina 35-12. The game was marred by several nasty incidents, with Western Samoa's Mata'afa Keenan and Argentina's Pedro Sporleder becoming the first players to be sent off at a World Cup.

Wales recovered to beat Argentina but were then thrashed 38-3 by Australia in a record score to eject them from the cup and force them to suffer the ignominy of qualifying with the minnows for the 1995 tournament in South Africa.

The continued improvement in Japan's rugby skills was heightened by their competitive showing in pool play. They lost heavily to an experienced Scotland team by 47-9 but then pushed Ireland hard before bowing down 32-16. Next opponents Zimbabwe did not know what hit them, as the Japanese ran in nine entertaining tries in a record victory by 52-8.

Canada also had a tournament to remember under the guidance of inspirational captain and first-five Gareth Rees. They qualified for the quarter-finals after beating a hugely disappointing Fiji 13-3, then Romania by 19-11, before losing 19-13 to France in a turbulent struggle.

Canada's good form continued into the quarter-finals where they were far from disgraced in losing 29-13 to a strangely subdued All Black team. John Timu (2), John Kirwan, Bernie McCahill and Zinzan Brooke scored tries but Canada put up a torrid challenge and crossed the All Blacks' line twice.

Scotland finally ended brave Western Samoa's tournament with a 28-6 victory almost single-handedly inspired by their world class fullback, Gavin Hastings. Captain Peter Fatialofa, Stephen Bachop, Frank Bunce and Pat Lam were stars in a Samoan team that won world wide acclaim.

England showed their newfound mental toughness to beat France in a spiteful encounter in Paris. Their 19-10 win was clinched by tries to centre Will Carling and winger Rory Underwood but was a sad farewell to the great French fullback Serge Blanco after 93 tests.

The final semifinal spot went to the Wallabies after a match frequently listed in the 10 greatest of all time. In front of a packed Lansdowne Road in Dublin, the home team kept in touch with the more fancied Aussies, despite being outscored three tries to none. Campese scored two more tries and Michael Lynagh one, but Ralph Keyes kicked three penalties and a drop goal for Ireland to trail 15-12 with minutes remaining.

Then the real drama started. Ireland's rawboned flanker Gordon Hamilton latched on to a loose ball and outsprinted the defence to score in the corner. Keyes' splendid conversion had the Irish in front 18-15 with four minutes left. Up stepped stand-in skipper Lynagh, with Nick Farr-Jones off injured, to plot the winning of the match. He kicked deep and trusted John Eales to win the lineout. The Wallabies then attacked and forced a scrum near the Irish line with time up. Lynagh ignored the easy option of a drop goal and extra time to call a slick move he trusted, which ended with him diving over in the corner.

Once the Irish got over their loss, they took the Dublin-based Australians to heart and supported them like their own in the semifinal showdown against the unsmiling, unpopular All Blacks. The game was decided in the first half, when Campese won it with two opportunistic plays that highlighted just how good the erratic genius could be. He scored himself from a 30m angled run that bamboozled the All Blacks' defence, then flicked the ultimate over-the-shoulder pass to put Horan in for the crucial 13-0 lead. The All Blacks never looked likely, ultimately losing 16-6.

Compared with the drama in Dublin, the other semifinal was a dour affair between two traditional rivals who were too scared to chance their arm and risk making a mistake. England overcame Scotland 9-6 at Murrayfield, Edinburgh, thanks mainly to local hero Gavin Hastings' poor day with his boot.

New Zealand and Scotland had to contest the play-off for third and fourth, which no team enjoys. But it did produce a lively match in Cardiff, with Walter Little sparking a rejuvenated backline and scoring the only try of the game. Jon Preston kicked the goals in place of the injured Fox. The World Cup final in front of 62,500 at Twickenham was expected to be a showdown between the brilliance of the Australian backs, up against England's huge, dominant pack and 10-man rugby orchestrated by first-five Rob Andrew. England's pack certainly gained most of the possession as the Wallabies were forced into a major defensive effort superbly marshalled by flankers Willie Ofahengaue and Simon Poidevin. But England changed tactics for the final in a move designed to catch the Wallabies unawares.

It nearly worked for them too, with only a despairing tackle from Eales on Andrew, and a controversial knockdown of a pass by Campese when England had a clear overlap, preventing certain tries.

Australia did manage the only four-pointer and for all their attacking skills it came from an old-fashioned rumble near the line with prop Tony Daly crashing over. It was fitting as Daly, hooker Phil Kearns and Ewen McKenzie formed probably the best Wallaby front row ever. Their resolute performance in gaining parity at scrum time was the key to winning the final and for the Webb Ellis Trophy to spend four more years Downunder.

NZ referee cops ire of French

After England won a typically brutal quarter-final 19-10 over their cross-channel neighbours, French coach Daniel Dubroca fancied a quiet word with the New Zealand referee Dave Bishop.

Under incendiary Le Crunch conditions, Bishop had done as good a job as could be managed to contain the hostilities. Dubroca felt otherwise. The word "cheat" was mentioned. The former hooker grabbed the Kiwi referee by the collar. Prop Pascal Ondarts joined in and allegedly threw a punch Bishop's way.

Dubroca reckoned it was all a bit of a misunderstanding.

"I simply congratulated him after the match ... If I touched him it was a fraternal gesture as I know him so well."

Anyway, said French rugby chief Albert Ferrasse, Dubroca couldn't have said anything very rude to Bishop because his English "was not good enough to abuse the referee seriously".

A week later, Dubroca resigned and the farce had run its course.

1987
Video: Great World Cup moments - 1987
In the beginning: Remembering our last victory drink
How we won: The All Blacks - Getting the nation back into black
Setting the scene: Long road to global rugby supremacy
A sending off that made Wallaby history
All Black memories: 'Dawn of a new era'
Tournament star: Michael Jones - Keeping up with Jones
Tournament action: Fans' lukewarm start fast turned to fervour

1991
Video: Great World Cup moments - 1991
How we won: The Wallabies - Defeats led to success
Aussie's winning mindset
'Beaten by a better team'
Tournament action: Fitter, faster England level the playing field
After long string of wins it was a bridge too far
Tournament star: David Campese - Campo's golden touch

- NZ Herald

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