Brad Lewis: Rugby World Cup's five greatest upsets in tournament history

OPINION: Upsets have long been a part of sport, but very rarely has the Rugby World Cup thrown up shocks heard around the world.

There have been a few though, as All Black fans well and truly know.

With the Rugby World Cup currently in full flight in Japan, we look back at the five biggest upsets in tournament history.

5. France beat New Zealand 20-18
2007 World Cup (quarter-final)

French flanker Thierry Dusautoir celebrates his quarter-final try.
French flanker Thierry Dusautoir celebrates his quarter-final try. Photo credit: Getty

OK, so we should have been prepared, after what happened in 1999 right? More on that later.

Unfortunately, several factors contributed to the All Blacks' earliest elimination from a Rugby World Cup. 

Whether it was the grey jersey, referee Wayne Barnes' missed forward passes and clear penalties, Luke McAlister's sin-binning, Daniel Carter's calf injury or Nick Evans' inability to kick a drop goal - or a combination of all of those - New Zealand simply weren't good enough to close out a game they dominated. 

The All Blacks led the quarter-final 13-3 at halftime and 18-13 with 12 minutes to play, and even after the French went in front, the All Blacks dominated the final 10 minutes, but couldn't find the play they needed. 

This was a very good All Blacks side that was four years shy of being a great All Blacks side. 

4. Japan beat Ireland 19-12
2019 World Cup (group stage)

Japan could be quarter-final bound for the very first time.
Japan could be quarter-final bound for the very first time. Photo credit: Getty

Ireland started this World Cup as the best team on the planet, eyeing a spot in the final against the All Blacks.

Now that clash is likely for the quarter-finals and another World Cup failure for the emerald greens.

Japan outplayed a predictable Irish side for the final hour, dominating possession, territory and the scoreboard, scoring 16 straight points to reel in a 12-3 deficit.

Ireland's attack was insipid, while Japan's was inspired, throwing the ball around at will while Joe Schmidt's side inexplicably kicked the ball away at every opportunity.

This was an unexpected result, even taking into account Japan's shock win over South Africa four years ago. It questions Ireland's World Cup-winning credentials and offers the question; Are Japan good enough to make the World Cup final?

3. France beat New Zealand 43-31
1999 World Cup (semi-final) 

Christophe Dominici scored a crucial second-half try for France.
Christophe Dominici scored a crucial second-half try for France. Photo credit: Getty

We were all guilty of eyeing up Australia in the 1999 final and so were the players.

Thanks to Jonah Lomu, the All Blacks led a passionate French side 24-10 five minutes into the second half. That should have been the ball game.

A New Zealand side featuring Lomu, Jeff Wilson, Josh Kronfeld, Justin Marshall, Tana Umaga, Christian Cullen, Andrew Mehrtens and Robin Brooke should have found a way to close the game out.

But two curious drop goals from French No.10 Christophe Lamaison completely turned the momentum of the contest and before the nation could blink, France had scored three converted tries and the All Blacks trailed 43-24 with five minutes to play.

Wilson added a consolation try to bring a measure of respectability to the scoreline, but the All Blacks were now World Cup chokers.

2. Western Samoa beat Wales 16-13
1991 World Cup (group stage)

To'o Vaega on his way to scoring a try for Western Samoa.
To'o Vaega on his way to scoring a try for Western Samoa. Photo credit: Getty

Little did we know it at the time, but the Samoan side of 1991 featured arguably the greatest-ever All Back centre in Frank Bunce.

This iteration of Manu Samoa was stacked with talent, including Brian Lima, Peter Fatialofa, Stephen Bachop and Pat Lam, but to think they would be good enough to upset one of the greatest rugby nations of all time was a stretch.

Oh, and the fact it was played at Cardiff Arms Park made the result even more incredible. For the first time in World Cup history, a rank outsider turned over an international heavyweight and grabbed worldwide headlines.

In Wales, one scribe famously wrote: "Thank heavens Wales weren't playing the whole of Samoa." 

As for the match - the sides traded two tries apiece, but the boot of Matthew Vaea proved the difference, adding a second-half penalty to his two conversions to seal the result.

1. Japan beat South Africa 34-32
2015 World Cup (group stage) 

Karne Hesketh scores the clincher for Japan.
Karne Hesketh scores the clincher for Japan. Photo credit: Getty

Make no mistake about it - this was one of the biggest upsets in the history of sport, let alone rugby. It was the undisputed No.1 Rugby World Cup shock of all time.

Under the tactical nous of Eddie Jones, Japan hit the Springboks with tenacious defence and adventurous attack, causing panic within the Springbok camp and ultimately a boilover of massive proportions. 

Try as they might, the Boks couldn't separate themselves from the 'Brave Blossoms', despite leading for most of the 84 minutes.

Eventually, it came down to one final Japanese attack, with Kiwi-born Karne Hesketh crashing over in the corner to stun the entire nation of South Africa. 

Honourable mentions 

Fiji beat Argentina (1987), Samoa beat Wales (1999), Fiji beat Wales (2007), Tonga beat France (2011), Argentina beat Ireland (2015) and Uruguay beat Fiji (2019).

Brad Lewis a Newshub digital sports producer