Rugby World Cup 2019: History

  • 01/04/2019

1987 Australia/New Zealand

Winners: New Zealand

Runners-up: France

Compared to other global sports, rugby was late to the table in organising a World Cup tournament. Still an amateur sport, the event and the exposure generated was one of the first major steps towards professionalism.

The All Blacks absolutely dominated the competition. The hosts went unbeaten throughout and won their games by an average of 41 points, including a 29-9 defeat of France in the final at Eden Park.

Australia provided the drama in the tournament, after going down to France in the semi-finals 30-24 and then losing to Wales in the playoff for bronze 22-21.

Grant Fox emerged as top scorer at the 1987 World Cup
Grant Fox emerged as top scorer at the 1987 World Cup. Photo credit: Photosport

After being ranked a clear number two going into the tourney, fourth place was hard to swallow for the co-hosts.

The comprehensive 1987 victory for the All Blacks set up an expectation for fans and future players that proved hard to live up to.  

Top point-scorer: Grant Fox (NZ) 126pts

Top try-scorers: Craig Green/John Kirwan (NZ) six


1991 England/Wales/France/Ireland/Scotland

Winners: Australia

Runners-up: England

The first northern hemisphere edition of the World Cup was evidence of the increasing competitiveness found within world rugby.

In their first appearance on the top stage, Western Samoa shocked Wales 16-13 in Cardiff to help knock the co-hosts out of the tournament in pool play.

Another surprise saw Canada finish second in their pool and qualify for the playoffs, a result that still counts as their best ever.

The champion All Blacks beat England 18-12 at Twickenham in their opening match of the tournament and eased their way into the knockout stages.

Nick Farr-Jones celebrates Australia's victoy at 1991 World Cup
Nick Farr-Jones celebrates Australia's victory at 1991 World Cup. Photo credit: Photosport

But after seeing off the Canadians in the quarters, they came up against a Wallabies side determined to avoid World Cup disappointment this time round.

After defeating Ireland 19-18 in a Dublin thriller, the more hardened nature of Australia's schedule proved valuable, as they fought their way to a 16-6 defeat of New Zealand. 

On the other side of the draw, England had also worked hard for tight wins over France and Scotland, seeing them through to the final, where they went down 12-6 to the victorious Wallabies.

Top point-scorer: Ralph Keyes (Ireland) 68pts

Top try-scorer: Jean-Baptiste Lafond (France)/David Campese (Australia) six


1995 South Africa

Winners: South Africa

Runners-up: New Zealand

The 1995 tournament was one of the most notable in the sport's history for many reasons.

Its booming success made it the last major event of the amateur era of rugby, a massive global superstar was born and a conspiracy left a bitter taste in the mouths of All Blacks fans for years to come.

It was also the first World Cup that South Africa was allowed to contest and the first major sporting event to take place in South Africa after the end of apartheid.

For All Blacks and rugby trivia fans, New Zealand's pool play was highlighted by a 145-17 victory over Japan, during which Marc Ellis scored a World Cup-record six tries.

But the emergence of Jonah Lomu on the world stage overshadowed all other players of note at the time. He scored seven tries in the tournament, including four against England in the semi-final, during which he left commentator Keith Quinn famously out of breath and in awe at his barn-storming opener.

Nelson Mandela presents the Webb Ellis Trophy to South African captain Francois Pienaar
Nelson Mandela presents the Webb Ellis Trophy to South African captain Francois Pienaar. Photo credit: Photosport

That performance came in at number 19 on a publicly voted list of greatest sporting moments by the British public in 2002.

Most results at the tournament went the way of the expected top seeds and hosts South Africa progressed to the final, where they faced favourites New Zealand. 

Held at Johannesburg's Ellis Park, the Sprinboks defeated the All Blacks 15-12, with Joel Stransky scoring a drop goal in extra time to win the try-less match. The image of Nelson Mandela, wearing a Springbok jersey, presenting the trophy to the victors has become iconic.

But controversy then rocked the tournament, as news emerged that the All Blacks had suffered a mass outbreak of suspected food poisoning in the 48 hours before the final.

Conspiracy theories about the poisoning being a deliberate attack have abounded, but were never proven.

Top point-scorer: Thierry Lacroix (France) 112pts

Top try-scorer: Jonah Lomu/Marc Ellis (NZ) seven


1999 Wales

Winners: Australia

Runners-up: France

To the chagrin of All Blacks fans, Australia became the first nation to win the tournament twice.

Once again, the biggest shock within pool play came from Samoa, the Pacific Islanders upsetting hosts Wales at Millennium Stadium 38-31, although it wasn’t enough to knock the Welsh out of the tournament. 

That job was left to the Wallabies, who were then forced into extra time to defeat champions South Africa 27-21 in the semis.

After rampaging through pool play and a quarter-final victory over Scotland, the All Blacks were shocked by France - for the first and not the last time in World Cup play - in their semi-final.

John Eales celebrates Australia's victory in 1999
John Eales celebrates Australia's victory in 1999. Photo credit: Photosport

The match was a true classic, with France coming back from 24-10 down at halftime to defeat New Zealand 43-31.

But that performance proved to be too hard to follow up in the final, as Australia eased to a 35-12 win to seal the trophy.

Top point-scorer: Gonzalo Quesada (Argentina) 102pts

Top try-scorer: Jonah Lomu (NZ) eight


2003 Australia

Winners: England

Runners-up: Australia

Despite being hosted downunder, England went into the 2003 tournament as favourites, after achieving a Grand Slam in Six Nations play earlier that year.

A rebuilding and youthful All Blacks side - featuring a 21-year-old Dan Carter and 22-year-old Richie McCaw - came into the tournament hot, after romping to an undefeated Tri-Nations title.

Their form continued in pool play, as they averaged more than 70 points per game to progress to the quarter-finals.

After a convincing 29-9 victory over South Africa, the All Blacks were tripped up by Australia 22-10 in the semi-final. The match was decided by a Stirling Mortlock intercept try from a loose Carlos Spencer pass.

Wallabies halfback George Gregan then uttered his infamous words to the defeated All Blacks: "Four more years, boys, four more years."

George Gregan in action for Australia
George Gregan in action for Australia. Photo credit: Photosport

But the defeated Kiwis took some solace a week later, as Australia disappointed their home fans by succumbing to England 20-17 in the Sydney final.

Top point-scorer: Jonny Wilkinson (England) 113pts

Top try-scorer: Doug Howlett/Mils Muliaina(NZ) seven


2007 France

Winners: South Africa

Runners-up: England

This was not a year that All Blacks fans remember fondly. 

With a squad boasting talent the likes of McCaw, Carter, Conrad Smith, Tony Woodcock and Jerry Collins, expectations were high.

And after pool-play results saw New Zealand win by an average of 69 points, all signs supported them as title favourites.

But at Cardiff's Millenium Stadium, up against a French side that had lost to Argentina in pool play, their tournament unravelled.

In their biggest World Cup upset yet, France stole a 20-18 win, thanks to a late Yannick Jauzion try. Afterwards, critics blamed a range of issues for the side's defeat, including their controversial rest-and-rotation policy, undefined positions for key players and simple over-confidence.

Wayne Barnes presides over NZ v France
Wayne Barnes presides over NZ v France. Photo credit: Photosport

But perhaps the biggest finger of blame was pointed at English referee Wayne Barnes, who seemed to miss a blatant forward pass in the build-up to France's match-winning try.

While South Africa went on to seal their second World Cup title with a dour 15-6 over England win in Paris, the All Blacks were left taking notes - and the research eventually paid off. 

Top point-scorer: Percy Montgomery (South Africa) 105pts

Top try-scorer: Bryan Habana (South Africa) eight


2011 New Zealand

Winners: New Zealand

Runners-up: France

This tournament was the largest-ever sporting event on New Zealand soil and proved to be a joyous occasion for All Blacks fans, who had been without a world title for 21 years.

The hosts began the tournament in style, keeping intact their record of never losing in World Cup pool play.

Meanwhile, Ireland surprised many by defeating Australia 15-6 at Eden Park to top their pool.

Once again, the finals saw France punch above their weight by defeating England 19-12 and Wales 9-8 in the semi-final. The other side of the draw featured Australia's 11-9 win over South Africa, before the clinical All Blacks saw them off 20-6 in their semi.

The playoffs saw halfback Piri Weepu become a cult figure, after a string of injuries depleted the All Blacks goal-kicking stocks. He kicked 11/14 penalties in two knockout appearances and became the face of a fashion trend, when 'Keep Calm - Piri's On' T-shirts emerged. 

But another saviour emerged from the banks of the Waikato River to help seal the All Blacks' second World Cup.

Richie McCaw & Brad Thorn raise the Webb Ellis Trophy in an Auckland parade
Richie McCaw & Brad Thorn raise the Webb Ellis Trophy in an Auckland parade. Photo credit: Photosport

After injuries to Dan Carter, Colin Slade and Aaron Cruden, Stephen Donald was plucked from a whitebaiting trip and ran on as a replacement to kick what proved to be a game-winning penalty in the 8-7 defeat of France in the final.

This time, the words "four more years" only meant the time New Zealand had to wait before doing it all again.

Top point-scorer: Morne Steyn (South Africa) 62pts

Top try-scorer: Chris Ashton (England)/Vincent Clerc (France) eight


2015 England

Winners: New Zealand

Runners-up: Australia

After taking 21 years to follow-up their first World Cup title, the All Blacks became the first team to retain one and the first to win for a third time in 2015.

This tournament featured some of the biggest upsets in World Cup history and was the first where no northern hemisphere side progressed past the quarter-finals.

Almost every rugby fan remembers the day Japan defeated South Africa 34-32 in their opening fixture. The result has gone down as one of the greatest upsets in sport, with Japan having never previously beaten a tier-one side in World Cups.

Similarly, hosts England inflicted shock and dismay on their fans, after losing to Wales and Australia in pool play, and failing to make the playoffs for the first time in their history.

The quarter-finals saw Argentina upset Ireland 43-20 to reach their second semi in three tournaments and help set up an all-southern hemisphere contest for the final two.

Richie McCaw raises the trophy after the 2015 Rugby World Cup
Richie McCaw raises the trophy after the 2015 Rugby World Cup. Photo credit: Photosport

Australia then ended the Pumas run and booked a final clash with New Zealand, after the All Blacks edged South Africa 20-18 at Twickenham.

This time, the final was no tense affair, with three All Blacks tries driving them to the record-breaking 34-17 victory.

Top point-scorer: Nicolas Sanchez (Argentina) 97pts

Top try-scorer: Julian Savea (NZ) eight