The Roar
The Roar

There is always an agenda behind the selection of the host country and venues for a Rugby World Cup. The 1991 tournament involved a rugby politics agenda on steroids.

This political tendency had started in 1987 when the playing schedule for the inaugural World Cup was decided.

The organisers decided early on, even though Australia’s Sir Nicholas Shehadie was a prime mover in getting the tournament up and running, that the final would be played at Eden Park, the cathedral of New Zealand rugby.

Rugby politics demanded this outcome.

In New Zealand, rugby was (and still is) a religion. A final in the country, even if the national team was not playing in it, would be an inevitable sell-out.

This was a crucial element in the decision because there was doubt about the financial viability of the tournament from its inception. This was only assuaged when, about 30 minutes before the opening match – New Zealand versus Italy at Eden Park – a television deal with the BBC involving worldwide coverage was finally concluded.

The same outcome of big crowds and a worldwide TV deal could not necessarily have been anticipated in Australia, even though the then-Australian Rugby Union (now Rugby Australia) was co-hosting the tournament.

The decision to make New Zealand the selling point was vindicated when only 17,000 or so spectators turned out at Sydney’s Concord Oval for one of the great World Cup matches, the semi-final between the Wallabies and France. The ground capacity was about 20,000.

In a sense, New Zealand was rewarded for being a rugby nation in 1987 because its inexperienced team had the benefit of playing at home for most of the tournament.

This home-ground factor was at its most potent during the final when a strong French side was overwhelmed by a charged-up All Blacks outfit that responded to the support of virtually everyone at Eden Park.

David Kirk kisses the Webb Ellis Cup

David Kirk became the first man to lift the Webb Ellis Cup in victory, his All Blacks aided by home-ground advantage in the final.

It was no surprise, then, that when the 1991 Rugby World Cup was allocated to them, the blazer brigade that ran English rugby, the arrogantly named Rugby Football Union, rather than the England Rugby Football Union, decided to organise the tournament in a way that enhanced the prestige of English rugby and gave the national team a strong chance of winning.

This process had already started during the organisation of the 1987 tournament.

“On instructions from the International Rugby Board,” the organisers of the 1987 tournament announced that the World Cup trophy would be named after William Webb Ellis, the boy who was supposed to have picked up the ball at Rugby School in 1823 and run with it, thereby “originating the distinctive feature” of the new ‘rugby’ game.

It was John Kendall-Carpenter, an Englishman who had represented his country and worked as an IRB organiser in 1987, who found the Garrard Cup, and insisted it be used as the official trophy.

“I’ve bought this cup in London,” he blithely told a New Zealand official, Ivan Vodanovich.

When he inspected the trophy, Vodanovich told me later, it seemed to him that a soccer ball wreathed in laurels sat atop the cup’s lid.

It was no surprise to people with a knowledge of how the sport’s politics worked that the RFU-dominated International Rugby Board granted the hosting rights for the 1991 World Cup to the same RFU.

And it was even less of a surprise that the opening ceremony of the tournament was an orgy of the Rugby Football Union’s tendency towards triumphalism.

Prince Edward presided over the opening ceremony at Twickenham on behalf of the Queen, and England’s perceived patent over the intellectual property of the rugby game – by dint of the William Webb Ellis myth – was blatantly endorsed when Rugby School boys appeared, dressed in ‘Tom Brown’s Schooldays’ dress, running out on to the field.

The message at Twickenham for the rugby world was clear.

The rugby game was invented by upper-class English schoolboys and their successors. Their representatives, who controlled the Rugby Football Union, intended to exercise moral and financial power over the rest of the rugby world.

But could England transfer this off-the-field power to an on-the-field triumph?

The actual World Cup arrangements were, accordingly, drawn up to favour the home side.

England and New Zealand were scheduled to play the opening match. The winner would go into the same finals pool as Australia, the favourites. In fact, there was media speculation that England would or should throw the match, as a loss ensured a much easier route to the final.

Given the probability that England would be defeated by New Zealand (their last victory at Twickenham against the All Blacks was in 1935) this draw, it was believed by the experts, gave the home side their best chance of progressing to the decider.

Whatever the speculation, the All Blacks won a lacklustre opening match 18-12.

This led them to a semi-final against the Wallabies, which was in effect the real final as it involved the two best sides in the tournament.

England had a difficult quarter-final to win against France at Paris, which the team did, 19-10, before a relatively easy semi-final against Scotland. They then took on Australia at the home-ground fortress of Twickenham in the final.

There was so much disgust among the players at this manipulation of the draw to favour the hosts that when Scotland’s craggy flanker John Jeffry was asked after his team’s semi-final loss who he thought should, or would, win the tournament, he replied: “Any team but England.”

England players celebrate their victory over Scotland

Writing about the tournament for the Sydney Morning Herald, I argued several times in articles that the team with destiny on its side was Australia.

First, there was the side’s good fortune to have been given Ireland as their home base for the opening pool round and then the crucial knockout match against New Zealand.

The Wallabies were able to build a rapport with the Irish rugby followers. Their support in the semi-final was so overwhelming that it seemed to players on both sides that Australia were playing a home game.

And the team had a number of great players. David Campese, rugby’s greatest ever broken-field runner, was at the peak of his powers. Tim Horan was the complete centre. Nick Farr-Jones and Michael Lynagh formed a terrific halves pairing.

In the forwards, there was the incomparable John Eales playing in his first season of Test rugby. Simon Poidevin was a hard man’s hard man leading a strong pack. Willie Ofahengaue was the original powerhouse number 8. And the front row of Tony Daly, Phil Kearns and Ewen McKenzie was arguably the best the Wallabies have ever fielded.

When, after the event, you look back on a tournament like a Rugby World Cup, the outcome seems easy to predict. But while the competition was unfolding no one in the Australian camp was overly confident of winning.

The team had a tough passage through the pool rounds.

Against Argentina, the Wallabies led by only four points at half-time. Then Campese, the player of the tournament, scored a typically brilliant try and the match was won.

Against Western Samoa, they again struggled to win.

Then came the monster scare in the knockout quarter-final against Ireland when Gordon Hamilton scored for the home side, thrusting them into the lead with only four minutes to play.

Nick Farr-Jones told the BBC in November 2003 he had heard many stories of supporters back home in Australia kicking their cats or putting the boot into their dogs.

“I heard some people who even went to bed,” he told the interviewer, “assuming the game was lost. I’d come off injured and, sitting in the stands, I believed we were done.

“If I was still on the field, I’d have reacted very differently from Michael Lynagh. I’d have read the team the riot act. But he said he’d kick long. That took guts and the rest is history as he went on to score.”

John Eales, out on the field, also thought the Wallabies were going to be beaten. Bizarrely, the first thought that came to him was, “What is going to happen to my dry cleaning?” It was not going to be ready until Monday, but under the protocols of the World Cup, once a team is out of the tournament players had to leave for home the next day. The next day was Sunday.

John Eales also thought the Wallabies were going to be beaten. His first thought was about the fate of his dry cleaning.

The great escape needed a rugby mastermind. Cometh the hour, cometh the man.

The man, with captain Farr-Jones off the field, was Michael Lynagh.

Lynagh, now the acting skipper, was a son of a psychologist. He was a tough-minded, pragmatic man and a player with a goal-kicker’s nerveless, precise and calm confidence.

The situation he faced could not have been more perilous for the Wallabies.

They are three points behind with four minutes left.

The try by the home side, as unexpected as bright sunlight on a winter’s day in Dublin, has energised the crowd so emphatically that one supporter rushes out to the field to hug the scorer, Hamilton.

With bedlam erupting in the stands and on the field, Lynagh gathers the Wallabies together under the posts. He calmly explains the plan they need to follow.

First, Lynagh says, they must not panic. Four minutes is plenty of time to win the match. He will kick long. He wants pressure put on the Irish catcher to force a hurried kick into touch. This will give the Wallabies a good field position from the lineout to drive to the tryline. Although a three-point drop goal will draw the match and force it into extra time, he wants to score a try and win it.

The long kick-off works. The Wallabies get the lineout they need. Eales, as usual, wins the catch. David Campese comes into play and is locked at the centre of a driving, pulsating, frenetic maul that inches its way towards the Ireland try-line.

Campese had earlier in his career been accused of being reluctant to put his body at risk, but not even his most dogged critic can fault his bravery now. Despite the whacks and smashes he is getting from the Ireland forwards, he holds onto the ball to force a scrum right on the Ireland tryline, with Australia to feed it.

Lynagh, now the playmaker, is faced with another set of decisions.

It would be easy to drop-kick a goal from this position. Should he go for this easy option? No, he still wants a try. What move, then, should the Wallaby backs set up?

The simple ploy of cutting out Jason Little in the centres and passing long and flat to Marty Roebuck coming in from fullback has worked three times. Could it for a fourth?

Lynagh made possibly the single most fateful decision made in Rugby World Cup history.

Lynagh decides to try it.

This is possibly the single most fateful decision made in the history of the Rugby World Cup.

The move works – sort of. Out wide, Campese is given room to drive for the try-line. He is held up by a desperate Ireland defence. In blind hope, he bounces the ball backwards to a swarm of Wallaby backs and mass of Irish defenders.

The ball pops into the hands of Lynagh, who scrambles across for a try to create a winning finish that a Boys Own writer would shrink from penning.

The conversion from the side is missed. But who cares? The Wallabies have won an epic 19-18 victory.

Are they destined now to win the Webb Ellis trophy for the first time?

This is certainly the feeling of the players. Simon Poidevin reported as much in a column for the Herald:

“In the sanctuary of our dressing room it was almost possible to hear the pounding of Wallaby hearts. It was a sea of smiling faces. God must be an Australian, we thought. I vowed to myself then and there that there we would win the World Cup.”

Michael Lynagh takes a kick
Australia's Michael Lynagh scores the winning try
Michael Lynagh scores the match-winning try

The crucial match for the Wallabies in achieving Poidevin’s dream was the semi-final in Dublin against the All Blacks.

On the morning of the match, a mass was organised for the team’s Catholics at their hotel. The local Irish priest prayed for an Australian victory.

At the team meeting, the night before, Wallabies coach Bob Dwyer implored his players to win.

“I want to see only one headline in Monday’s paper,” he announced.

“That headline must be ‘Australian opening smashes All Blacks.'”

Dwyer got his wish. The Wallabies played the first 35 minutes about as well as rugby can be.

Campese turned on a virtuoso display. He scored one try by running the flattest of diagonal lines from near the All Blacks posts to plant the ball just inside the corner post.

Later in the match he rushed through, grabbed a miskick by Lynagh and raced towards the All Blacks’ corner post with his characteristic gliding-surging style, ball held high on his chest. When he was cornered by the All Blacks cover, he threw the ball over his head in a hail mary pass.

Tim Horan, who had, as usual, positioned himself perfectly, caught the ball and burst away to score the decisive try for the Wallabies.

The Campese magic also impacted on the fitness of the All Blacks.

Thirty minutes into the Test, Grant Fox, the All Blacks match-winner with his dead-eyed goal-kicking, tried to tackle the elusive Campese. The winger shifted his feet in his distinctive sidestep and eased away. In an attempt to ankle-tap him, Fox was forced to stretch out in a despairing dive. Pop! A muscle went and Fox, determined to stay on the field, was forced to try and play with an aggravated groin injury, osteitis pubis, often called ‘the kicker’s disease’.

Writing in the Rugby New, the New Zealand rugby doyen Bob Howitt made this honest concession: “The Aussies were the better team – they reminded me of the 1987 All Blacks.”

David Campese in action for Australia
Australia's players celebrate their victory
David Campese celebrates Australia's win over New Zealand

The brilliant performance against the All Blacks set up the final against England.

The World Cup trophy was not the only thing on the line, though, on November 2, 1991. On that overcast day at Twickenham, the future direction of world rugby lay in the balance.

England were claiming the leadership of rugby through the country’s history of having created the game and spread it to the colonies.

Australia, representing southern hemisphere rugby, were contesting that hegemony through match results – arguing, in effect, that power in rugby should come from the results of on-field battles.

In their pool matches, which included a loss to the All Blacks, England had scored 85 points, of which 49 had come from kicks, dropped goals, conversions and penalties. They had scored four tries against Italy, five against the United States and none against New Zealand.

A campaign was created to shame England into playing running rugby.

In the semi-final against Scotland, the hosts had reverted to their traditional method, kicking a drop goal and two penalties to win 9-6.

The Wallabies coaching staff decided that if England played their familiar attritional style with the huge Twickenham crowd supporting them, Australia’s chances of victory would be limited. So a campaign was created to shame them into trying to play running rugby.

The strategy behind the campaign was that a more open, flowing style by England, play that was against their traditions and instincts, could lead to mistakes and turnovers that the more skilful Wallabies could exploit.

The Australian media, myself included, hammered the ‘England is boring’ theme throughout the week leading up to the decider.

We found out later that this propaganda assault worked. The hosts’ management group changed the grinding game plan that had taken their team to the final and opted for an expansive game that ran contrary to the instincts and skills of the players.

With five minutes to go before the Wallabies were to take the field for the final, the team’s assistant coach, Bob Templeton, affectionately known by everyone in Australian rugby as ‘Tempo,’ called the players for attention.

He then, in a rasping, breathy baritone, read out Peter Fenton’s famous poem The Running Game.

There’s a spirit in the Wallabies
Mere words cannot describe.
It’s as if they are descended
From a legendary tribe …
It’s the camaraderie
That’s born of valour, not fame
It’s the sheer exhilaration
When you play the running game.

With these words ringing in their ears, the Wallabies made their way onto Twickenham to play what would be, in the words of Sir Nicholas Shehadie, the most important game in the history of Australian rugby.

As expected, the huge England pack dominated possession of the ball. The Wallabies had to live off scraps – Lynagh only touched the ball 17 times in the entire match.

By comparison, Rob Andrew, England’s astute first five-eighth and a precise punter and drop-goal expert, had 42 touches. But instead of playing to his side’s set-piece strength by hoofing the ball continually into Wallaby territory and forcing kickable penalties, he ran the ball, or put through attacking chip kicks.

The inveterate kicker ran 28 of his possessions, more times than he had in another single match throughout his whole career.

These uncharacteristic expansive tactics almost paid off when, towards the end of the match, Andrew broke through the Wallaby defence and scooted for the tryline, only for Eales to appear from nowhere and grab the Englishman’s ankles.

The tackle saved the World Cup for Australia.

The Wallabies were protecting a 12-6 lead. A crucial try had been scored when Tim Horan, racing back on defence, grabbed a kick-through. He turned, beat off a couple of tackles, and raced upfield.

Nick Farr-Jones

Nick Farr-Jones, presumably trying to find Bob Dwyer’s shithouse.

When Horan ran out of space with the England cover defence bearing down on hard on him, he kicked through and the ball was bundled into touch by England.

Phil ‘Lightning’ Kearns, so nick-named because his lineout throwing never struck the same target twice, fortunately for the Wallabies lived up to his name by under-throwing to a startled Willie Ofahengaue. The big number 8, a mistake-free player, caught the ball, set his massive shoulders and thighs into action and established an unstoppable mauling drive towards the tryline.

Tony Daly and Ewen McKenzie, the two Wallabies props, had their hands on the ball as a pile of gold jerseys flopped across the line.

England piled on the attacks. The running was remorseless, and so was the tackling by the Wallabies.

Campese and Lynagh, possibly still influenced by the running-game mantra, tried to put on a cut move, only to be converged on by the English defence, forcing a turnover. It was all too much for the dapper Bob Dwyer. Cupping his hands around his mouth, the Wallabies coach famously yelled out: “Kick it to the shithouse! Kick it to the shithouse!”

Several rows in front of Dwyer sat the Queen. Not a muscle twitched on her impassive face.

With Australia leading 12-6 at the full-time whistle, Horan, one of the stars of the final, was so excited he threw his arms into the air. He wanted to hug one of his teammates so overcome was he from relief and joy.

The nearest player was Daly. “So I hugged him,” Horan explained afterwards.

“We had the skinniest and the fattest bloke in the team embracing each other,” Eales later recalled.

“I also remember going into the sheds and feeling totally washed out. We were just so exhausted.”

Ewan McKenzie scores Australia's try in the 1991 Rugby World Cup final
John Webb and William Carling go for the ball during the 1991 Rugby World Cup final
Australia celebrate their victory over England in the Rugby World Cup Final

In the dressing room, aglow with the sweet pleasure of victory, the Wallabies set about creating an instant tradition by passing the William Webb Ellis trophy from one player to another and proclaiming them as world champions.

“Michael Lynagh. World champion!”

“David Campese. World champion!”

As the merriment and mayhem gathered pace, John Major, the British Prime Minister, arrived in the room to congratulate the champions.

Nick Farr-Jones, smoking a cigar while luxuriating in one of the several long baths provided in the dressing room, politely rose to his feet.

“Gidday John, how’re you going?” the Wallaby captain enquired, stretching out a hand.

Major nervously wiped the steam from his glasses and accepted the handshake of the naked, grinning Australian captain.

Many hours later, Sydney Morning Herald rugby writer Greg Growden came across Wallaby player Anthony Herbert, who was startling spectators still streaming out of Twickenham by asking them whether they’d met Bill.

Proudly pulling the William Webb Ellis Cup from its padded container and holding it up in the pose of the conqueror, Herbert shouted out words that rang around the shrine to English rugby triumphalism: “We’re taking Bill home!”

Nick Farr-Jones celebrates with the Rugby World Cup Trophy

Written by Spiro Zavos

Spiro is a founding writer on The Roar and long-time editorial writer on the Sydney Morning Herald, where he started a rugby column that ran for nearly 30 years. Spiro has written 12 books: fiction, biography, politics and histories of Australian, New Zealand, British and South African rugby. He is regarded as one of the foremost writers on rugby throughout the world.

Design and editing by Daniel Jeffrey

Image Credit: All images are Copyright Getty Images.