We all know that experienced teams win World Cups. Coaches plan their squads meticulously throughout the preceding years, building established combinations of players who are used Test rugby and used to each other.
However there is still room for the energy and brilliance of someone brand new to the scene who can add something to what was already there.
Let’s look back at some prodigies who have made a massive impact on their first World Cups, including a few who can be numbered among the game’s all time greats.
1987 Sir Michael Jones
Jones played his first game for the All Blacks in the first game of the first Rugby World Cup. He was the first ever try scorer in a Rugby World Cup and the first ever try scorer in a Rugby World Cup final.
More importantly, Iceman was the undoubted star of that tournament. He was considered by many the greatest flanker of all time, with his unique blend of ball skills, pace, power, athleticism and smarts.
He lost his pace after a major knee injury, but fought his way back as a world-class blindside. A thoroughly good man, he is now a magnificent leader in the Auckland Pacific Island community. A hero and role model to many.
1991 John Eales AM
Michael Jones was described by his Auckland and later All Blacks coach John Hart as “almost the perfect rugby player.” Of course, he said “almost” because nobody’s perfect… Which brings us nicely to our next bolter, who was known as Nobody for that very reason.
John Eales won his first Rugby World Cup having recently turned 21, just a year after his Queensland debut.
Already extremely athletic and effective in the lineout, his most memorable contribution in the final was running down a back from behind to execute a try saving tackle, something tight forwards didn’t do in those days.
Tight forwards also don’t kick goals, but Eales did regularly, saving the Bledisloe Cup for his country with a tricky, high pressure last gasp penalty at the Cake Tin nine years later. He has scored more points than any other Test forward.
He also led Australia to more glory in the 1999 World Cup and 2001 Lions series. One of the world’s greatest ever rugby players, he played a massive part in Australia’s most successful era. None of those three trophies have been recaptured since he retired.
1995 Os du Randt
It’s very rare that a prop is the baby in a team of hardened veterans, but then this Ox was a rare animal. First choice for South Africa in their first Rugby World Cup Final at the age of just 22, du Randt was already a tremendously powerful scrummager, feared ball carrier and the cult hero of South African rugby.
All this after a supposed career ending injury as a schoolboy.
In 1999 Os retired as after a series of injuries led to him being dropped from the team. But three years later he was tempted back, first by Cheetahs coach Rassie Erasmus and the following year by the Springboks’ Jake White.
His last great triumph was to play all 80 minutes of their 2007 World Cup Final victory, livening up the game with a typically powerful charge. Upon retirement he was his country’s most capped forward and he is still the only player to win two World Cups 12 years apart.
1995 Jonah Lomu
Although he was on the losing side in the final, it’s impossible not to include perhaps the most influential rugby player since William Webb Ellis.
After lighting up the 1994 Hong Kong sevens as an 18-year-old, Jonah was prematurely selected soon after for the All Blacks Test series against France and couldn’t cope with their outrageous attacking play.
He was dropped for the rest of the year and no certainty for the World Cup.
Up until the illness plagued final, Jonah seemed to singlehandedly dominate the tournament, continually making long runs around and mainly over the top of a series of unfortunate opponents on the way to scoring or setting up multiple tries in every game.
Footage of his steamrolling of Mike Catt on the way to the the first of a record four tries in the semi final went viral beyond the rugby world, making him the only genuine worldwide superstar in rugby history.
A rare kidney condition limited him to just two World Cups and cut short his life at the age of just 40. (I’m finding it hard to write this.) Despite this, he amazingly still holds the joint record for career tries in the Rugby World Cup.
Even greater than his deeds though was his legacy – he was the first modern power winger, a massive part of creating the aura that makes the All Blacks the biggest name and drawcard anywhere in the world, and by far the game’s biggest promotional asset. Thank you for everything, Jonah.
Jonah seemed to be a man playing against boys, boasting a unique combination of size, power, agility and speed. He used these attributes in a series of long runs where he ran around or more commonly through multiple opponents to score or create tries.
This culminated in the semi final win over England, where he scored four tries, his first when he ran straight over Mike Catt possibly the iconic moment in rugby history.
Jonah became rugby’s only truly global superstar, even in countries where the sport is largely unknown. He continued to score these amazing tries into the new millennium, and I was privileged to be present for a total of three against England and France at Twickenham in the 1999 World Cup.
Despite playing in only two World Cups he remains the joint record try scorer.
Sadly, a rare kidney disease led to his premature retirement from Test rugby and his tragic death aged just 40, still the biggest name in rugby.
2007 Francois Steyn
After his first season of Currie Cup in 2006, the brilliant teenaged flyhalf was rushed into the end of year Springbok tour and quickly became their Mr Fixit. His debut was on the wing, where he scored a try.
Against England he played fullback and dropped a goal from his own half. Then in the 2007 Tri Nations he won a game against Australia with two drop goals, one from 42 metres.
In the World Cup he moved to inside centre and stayed there for the final. In a tight, tryless game, a superb break by the 20 year old led to one penalty and he later kicked another. He is still the youngest player to win a final.
Steyn continued to kick long range goals – three penalties from his own half in 2009 against the All Blacks is thought to be a world record. However he probably didn’t have the long term impact for his country that he should.
He left the squad a few days before a Test in 2013 and didn’t play again for the Springboks until a surprise recall in 2017.
2011 Sam Whitelock
Whitelock started life as a fast, athletic lock who scored two tries off the bench on debut at the age of just 21.
He quickly learned the hard graft and toughness needed to succeed at the highest level, to the extent that a year later he had overtaken the phenomenally talented Ali Williams to be the starting lock in a World Cup Final.
Alongside the fearsome Brad Thorn he came of age against a ferocious French pack, laying the foundation for a battered and bruised team to at last win back the sport’s biggest prize.
Since Thorn retired that year, Whitelock has been the All Blacks’ senior lock from a very early age. He still holds the pack together, combining calm leadership with physical and mental resilience under pressure. A very valuable player.
2015 Nehe Milner-Skudder
In an age of rigorous talent identification, NMS was a rare late developing bolter, who few even in New Zealand had heard of at the start of 2015.
That changed in a phenomenal Super Rugby season when he beat defender after defender and scored try after try with a combination of massive sidesteps, lightening acceleration and intuition.
Injury seemed to ruin his chance to prove himself at Test level ahead of the big dance, but Steve Hansen wanted his unique point of difference and gave him a chance in the last two warm ups.
Two tries and two assists sealed his selection and he electrified England with six more, including the opener in the final itself.
Sadly, injuries cut short what looked like a stellar Test career almost before it began. How the All Blacks would love to have a fit and stepping NMS bewildering opponents in Japan.
Will there be a stand out bolter this year and if so who? A kiwi security guard on a weight loss programme? Some kid on a Leinster development contract? Find out in a few months.