Mick Cleary of the UK Telegraph talks to John Kirwan about the All Blacks' triumph in 1987.

It all seems so natural now, the four-year build to a Rugby World Cup, the plans, the strategies, the selection conundrums, the rise, the fall, the prospects. Every country buys into that cycle, works their way towards the goal, striving for the summit. So much energy, so much revenue with 80 per cent of the game's funding derived from the profits generated by the tournament. It is big business.

As the tournament in Japan nears, it is remarkable to think that there were so many sceptics prior to the first World Cup in 1987. Many in the more hidebound northern hemisphere believed that it would be the thin end of the wedge and would herald professionalism. It did, eight years later. But the demand was there. The latent interest was there. And the game needed it, particularly in New Zealand which had been riven by controversy across the early years of the decade.

Rugby might be a dominating influence in the affairs of that country but that does not mean that the sport is immune from criticism, that it has carte blanche to do as it pleases. New Zealand may be conservative in its mores but it is also progressive, the first country in the world to give women the vote and mindful, too, of its indigenous origins. It has a keen critical perspective on global events. As the 1987 tournament prepared to open at Eden Park in Auckland, All Black wing, John Kirwan, was aware that the ramifications were enormous.

Advertisement
John Kirwan in action. New Zealand All Blacks v France, 1987 Rugby World Cup final at Eden Park, Auckland on 20 June 1987. Photo / Photosport.co.nz
John Kirwan in action. New Zealand All Blacks v France, 1987 Rugby World Cup final at Eden Park, Auckland on 20 June 1987. Photo / Photosport.co.nz

"Rugby was in trouble, on a real downer," said Kirwan, then a 22-year-old rookie 'Baby Black', the soubriquet given to those who had been pushed forward into the Test team after the rupture caused by the non-sanctioned New Zealand Cavaliers tour to apartheid South Africa the year before.

"The 1981 South Africa tour to New Zealand had split the country here at home with demonstrations [the Test in Auckland was halted after a protest plane flour-bombed the pitch] and divisions even within families. The game was crying out for some unifying action, a moment, something to rally round.

"The 1987 World Cup was the start of a new era. People probably didn't realise that at the time, certainly not the administrators. I wouldn't give them too much credit. Only in retrospect could you see the pick-up, the significance of it all. The World Cup was a saviour, especially for us in New Zealand. It is probably the most important World Cup in that regard, for New Zealanders at any rate."

Kirwan was set on establishing himself in the All Blacks. That was one of the prime reasons that he hadn't joined the Cavaliers in South Africa [nor did World Cup-winning captain, scrum-half, David Kirk], the other being more straightforward as well as admirable.

"I didn't agree with apartheid," said Kirwan.

The backdrop to the 1987 tournament was febrile as well as uncertain, low-key even with many to be persuaded that a World Cup was necessary. All those doubts were blown away by Kirwan himself on the opening day. His weaving, darting length-of-the-field try against Italy, still with legitimate claim to being one of the greatest tries ever scored, set the tone. It looked instinctive as Kirwan took the ball inside his own 22 and set off upfield, past one, two, three and many more Italian defenders. If they looked as leaden as trees in the wake of the All Black wing, it is because, in Kirwan's mind, they were.

Sir John Kirwan. Photo / Tania Whyte.
Sir John Kirwan. Photo / Tania Whyte.

"I used to work in my dad's butcher's shop in Auckland and he told a pal of his, a footballer, Neville Denton, that I needed some work on my running," recalls Kirwan. "So Neville picked me up from the shop and took me to One Tree Hill, a volcanic-topped park in the city. He told me to run at 100 per cent through the trees. I stepped the first and hit the second. I can tell you, it hurt. I couldn't do it, step and maintain pace. So we went there every night for six weeks until I could do it, get my timing right, work out distance and keep my pace up after the step. That's exactly how I saw the Italians – as trees in my way."

Only 13,000 were at Eden Park that day to witness Kirwan's stunning score in person. Within hours, the footage had gone round the world. The World Cup had its first star, it had its raison d'être. When 16 teams arrived in New Zealand and Australia in May 1987, most of them unsure of what might eventuate. Now they knew.

Advertisement

"The All Blacks were ready, maybe more ready than most," said Kirwan. "We may have had jobs but we had specific training programmes, gym sessions all mapped out by a famous coach back then, Jim Blair. He used football drills, all about speed and footwork. It was innovative stuff and took New Zealand all the way through to 1989, on a record run of 23 matches unbeaten. The tournament start had been a bit ho-hum, even in New Zealand. Yeah, my try did have an impact. I was lucky in that regard. Everyone thought it was cool. Everyone wanted a bit of the World Cup after that."

New Zealand, in a group with Italy, Fiji and Argentina, had their noses in front throughout the tournament which lasted just over a month. Australia were regarded as a force after their successful grand slam tour of the home unions in 1984 but they fell to a stupendous last-ditch Serge Blanco try in a dramatic semi-final against France in Sydney, the full-back touching down in the corner to rob the home side of a dream final, winning 30-24, in one of the sport's most memorable matches. The following day in Brisbane, the All Blacks inflicted on Wales their heaviest ever defeat in a roughhouse match, scoring eight tries in a 49-6 win.

Wales had accounted for England in the quarter-final, beating Mike Harrison's side 16-3, in a flat, disappointing game. Ireland, who had finished runners-up to Wales in their group following wins over Canada and Tonga, were soundly beaten by Australia in Sydney, 33-15. Scotland could do little to stem New Zealand, losing 30-3 in the other quarter-final in Christchurch.

Sir John Kirwan in 2015. Photo / Jason Oxenham.
Sir John Kirwan in 2015. Photo / Jason Oxenham.

There was a richness about much of the play, laudable efforts on the world stage too from minnows, Zimbabwe and Japan.

"There were big moments all over the place," said Kirwan. "It was great to be part of, like being on tour in your own country. It was the first time we'd ever done the haka on home soil. We had to have a special meeting about whether it would be allowed. Then we had to practise it. [All Black captain] Buck Shelford had to give me private lessons, told me I was too much of a disco dancer. We could feel ourselves building through the tournament. Mind you, nothing was taken for granted.

"The day before we played Scotland in the quarter-final, our coach [the late] Brian Lochore came into the changing-room and pointed to his hands. 'In this right hand is a ticket to Brisbane and the semi-final,' he said. 'In this hand, a ticket to your home. Also here in my right hand is 100 years of All Black history. In my left hand, is the letting down of all those who have worn the shirt. Choose which ones you want.' Then he threw all the tickets in the air and walked out. That was our training run. You know, we did go well but there was pressure on us. We were considered unofficial world champions before the tournament so if we didn't close out the deal, it would have been a huge blow to our reputations."

The final itself was a routine affair with New Zealand far too strong, far too savvy for France who didn't manage to repeat their heroics of the semi-final. The All Blacks ran out 29-9 winners with tries from the peerless flanker, Michael Jones, David Kirk and Kirwan himself who finished the tournament with six tries.

"My feeling was that France had shot their bolt in the semi-final to see off Australia who looked to be the better team," said Kirwan. "We played a good brand of rugby, evolving from what John Hart had been doing with Auckland that season. It was far more all-court rugby than used to be the norm and was the basis for our on-going success. It brought a new style of game to the world."

And the world approved. The amateur sport was on its towards professionalism, if not quite there and then.

"Nah, most of the boys went back to work on the Monday," said Kirwan who was paving the way for a new generation with commercial endorsements for companies, a change of beat from the family butcher's. "Joe Stanley was a concrete truck driver, John Gallagher a cop, Craig Green a roofer, John Drake a banker, Buck was in the navy and Sean Fitzpatrick was a builder. You know, there was more relief than joy in the dressing-room that Saturday night, a certain flatness, that classic anti-climax. As in, what now? What do we do next?"

Work towards the 1991 World Cup was the answer. The 1987 tournament was a game-changer.