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Shoulda, coulda, woulda! The World Cup's almost-upsets

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Roar Guru
25th April, 2019
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Following on from my recent article on the biggest ever international boilovers, I have this time compiled a list of upsets that didn’t quite happen, confining my selection to those results that so nearly altered the course of World Cup history.

1987: France 20 drew with Scotland 20
A win for the latter would have seen them face Fiji in the quarter-finals and France play New Zealand, meaning we could’ve ended up with a Trans-Tasman final.

Of course, had it not been for Serge Blanco’s late winner for France against Australia in the semi-finals, we would’ve had a Trans-Tasman final anyway.

1991: Australia 19 beat Ireland 18
Michael Lynagh snatched a last-minute try for Australia in the quarter-finals, just when it looked like Ireland had stolen victory with winger Gordon Hamilton racing 40 metres to score with six minutes to play.

A win would’ve seen the Irish into the semis – a feat they still haven’t managed – before the likely England vs New Zealand final.

1995: South Africa 19 beat France 15
Hosts South Africa survived a late scare in their rain-sodden semi-final with France when Abdelatif Benazzi drove to the line and claimed he scored.

Had referee Derek Bevan agreed with him, it would’ve been a New Zealand vs France final and Clint Eastwood would’ve never made a film about it.

South Africa survived another scare in the final against the All Blacks themselves, going to extra-time, but on this occasion they were the underdogs.

1999: Australia 27 beat South Africa 21
What goes around comes around, and this time it was South Africa on the receiving end of an extra-time defeat.


Had they not lost to the Wallabies in the semis, they quite likely would’ve become the first double champions and back-to-back winners.

Alternatively, France would’ve got their first title. Meanwhile, Stephen Larkham described his winning drop-goal against the Springboks as a “fluke.”

2003: Australia 17 beat Ireland 16
The Irish almost fought back for an unlikely victory over hosts Australia, which would’ve put them into a more winnable quarter-final against Scotland, while the Wallabies would’ve played France and – surviving that – England in the semis.

Ireland themselves were lucky to survive Argentina in the group stages, while Scotland were almost stunned by Fiji.

Either result would’ve prevented what remains the only quarter-final line-up featuring all eight foundation members of World Rugby.

Also, what if Jonny Wilkinson hadn’t landed that extra-time drop goal for England in the final? Would we still be waiting for a Northern Hemisphere champ?

Martin Johnson holds World Cup trophy

(Odd Andersen/AFP/Getty Images)

2007: Ireland 14 beat Georgia 10, South Africa 30 beat Tonga 25
Two upsets that would’ve rivaled Japan’s over the Springboks in 2015 almost occurred in 2007 with Georgia taking Ireland down to the wire and Tonga giving eventual champs South Africa an almighty scare.


Might that have encouraged the powers-that-be to add the Lelos to the Six Nations and the Islands to SANZAAR?

Fiji gave the Springboks another big fright in the quarter-finals, though a late surge saw the Africans home.

2011: Australia 11 beat South Africa 9
Patrick Lambie’s disallowed try against Australia probably prevented South Africa reaching the semi-finals, while in the semis themselves, Sam Warburton’s equally controversial send-off against France probably denied Wales a maiden appearance in the final.

In fact, the final itself went down to the wire, with New Zealand clinging on for the narrowest of victories against France.

Les Bleus would’ve been just the fifth nation to lift the trophy, in what was their third and closet attempt in the final.


2015: Australia 35 beat Scotland 34
Certainly would’ve been interesting if Scotland had beaten Australia in the quarter-finals because it would’ve meant a new World Cup finalist for the first time since South Africa in 1995, and probably that team would’ve been Argentina.

The Scots were certainly unfortunate, as replays appeared to show the Wallabies’ last-minute penalty had been given in error.

Still, it’s in the history books now, and that’s all that matters.