Some of the Rugby World Cup’s greatest games have been played in the step before its showcase conclusion. Finals are often tense, cagey affairs, with both sides too close to the Webb Ellis Cup to risk making a mistake. Semifinals don’t quite follow the same rules.
Most of the best semifinals took place before the turn of the century, when waterlogged pitches were brushed with wooden brooms and tries were scored by those in baggy shirts. Why that is, who knows? But they’re still almost always exciting affairs.
Ahead of this weekend’s semifinal action in Japan, we take a look at the seven best matchups this round has seen since Australia and France kicked off in front of 17,000 spectators 32 years ago, including some of the most iconic matches in tournament history.
7. South Africa 19 – France 15, Durban, June 17, 1995
Not in most senses a great game, but one played amid extraordinary conditions, ratcheting tension and historic consequences: a different outcome would have meant no Mandela and Pienaar in identical shirts and no Invictus.
It doesn’t generally rain in autumn in Durban, but it had at two earlier matches, and this time seven inches dropped in 24 hours. With half the planes in South Africa waiting to fly to the other semifinal in Cape Town, it was the least postponable match in the tournament, while a rain-off would have eliminated South Africa on a tie-breaker based on disciplinary records. Kickoff was delayed by 95 minutes as helicopters and a squadron of 23 women armed with brooms were employed in desperate efforts to dry the pitch.
The rugby that ensued was frequently farcical and unfailingly tense. South Africa were leading by a try from Ruben Kruger, their best player of the tournament, before France lock Abdelatif Benazzi hurled himself at the line in the 79th minute. Referee Derek Bevan ruled no try. France might have bemoaned that call, or the decision to play at all, but those decisions paved the way for one of the most iconic semifinals in the sport’s history.
6. France 9 – England 14, Saint-Denis, Oct. 13, 2007
This one had the edge of being an unquestionable upset, a wholly unfancied England side who had been humiliated in the pool stage by South Africa, facing a host team that looked stronger at every point.
France should have been forewarned when England beat Australia in the quarters by dragging them into an arm-wrestle, but the hosts let it happen again. Stronger for long periods, France led for 57 minutes, but could never cut loose and only had three Lionel Beauxis penalties to show for it. England resisted doggedly and struck at the beginning and end — Josh Lewsey taking advantage of Damien Traille’s inexperience at full-back to score the only try in the second minute.
Jonny Wilkinson, cool as ever in a crisis, put England ahead with a 75th minute penalty and, with a certain inevitability, nailed a drop kick with two minutes left.
5. New Zealand 45 – England 29, Cape Town, May 18, 1995
It was the day after South Africa vs. France, and in conditions that could not have been more different — a sunny, clear afternoon. England captain Will Carling had just published a business book called “How to win,” but ran into adversity no quantity of managerial boilerplate could solve.
This does not rank higher because it was over as a contest after 20 minutes, but what an opening quarter it was. New Zealand scored two quick tries then added a penalty and a drop goal to lead 18-0. It is remembered, understandably, for Jonah Lomu’s four tries — in particular the first, blasting through three tacklers. Yet it was perhaps the All Blacks’ two drop-goals that epitomised their dominance — the first from around 40 metres by Zinzan Brooke, the other at the death from Andrew Mehrtens, looking left to see Lomu well-placed for a fifth try, apparently thinking that was too easy and landing the goal instead.
Four second-half tries were some consolation for England, albeit pretty hollow.
4. Australia 27 – South Africa 24 (aet), Twickenham, Oct. 30, 1999
A personal view is that this is the great forgotten World Cup match, not quoted as much as others, but fit to stand with any. It was unavoidably overshadowed by what happened the following day (see No. 2), leaving no doubt that this was the greatest weekend in World Cup history, and all the points came from kicks. This was a true heavyweight bout, Muhammad Ali vs. Joe Frazier recast as a rugby union match with the quick, inventive Aussies playing Ali, and the heavy-hitting Boks mimicking Smokin’ Joe.
That the penalties landed by Matt Burke for the Wallabies were generally from closer than Jannie de Beer’s for the Boks reflected their edge in speed and dexterity, but both teams defended superbly and neither could gain a decisive ascendancy.
Had the 85th minute penalty landed by de Beer to take it into extra-time at 21-21 led to a Bok win, it might — given the distance, angle and pressure — have been remembered as the greatest place-kick in World Cup history. Instead, it remains a footnote, thanks to the vast drop-kick landed by Aussie outside-half Steven Larkham, the only one of a 104-cap career, to inflict South Africa’s first ever World Cup defeat.
3. Australia 13 – New Zealand 3, Dublin, Oct. 27, 1991
All Black defeats have a scarcity that makes them memorable in themselves, but this one, their first in a World Cup match, stands alone. While none of the four since have been undeserved, none of their conquerors gave the feeling of being a fundamentally superior team.
That is how Australia seemed on this Sunday in 1991 at Lansdowne Road — their single piece of fortune that day was that great All Black flanker Michael Jones did not play on Sundays due to his religious beliefs.
A first-half of comprehensive superiority, remembered by Michael Lynagh as among the best of his time as a player, was topped off by David Campese, whose display led journalist Wanda Jamrozik to define the right-wing as “the rugby equivalent of quantum physics — he’s there, he’s not there, he’s atomic.”
Campese first took a seventh-minute pass in midfield to run an unstoppable angle to the left corner, then ran in and out to create the space into which his superb no-look pass released centre Tim Horan to charge down the right for the second try. Up 13-0 at half-time, the job was done, with the second half an exercise in reasonably comfortable containment.
2. France 43 – New Zealand 31, Twickenham, Oct. 31, 1999
This was the greatest French uprising since their revolution in 1789. France had finished bottom of the previous Five Nations, lost to Tonga in the summer and only escaped their group through refereeing glitches.
They trailed 24-10 at 45 minutes despite playing much better than they had earlier in the tournament, with the All Blacks already looking toward the final. Then the world turned upside down.
Only once before had New Zealand conceded 33 points in a match — they still won that one — but this time it happened in little more than a quarter. The deluge began with two drop-goals from Christophe Lamaison. Three tries followed; Christophe Dominici seized upon a happy bounce, then Lamaison chipped inch-perfectly for Richard Dourthe.
The coup de grace was administered by Philippe Bernat-Salles following an 80-metre hack and chase. Twickenham erupted in unprecedented Francophilia, while the New Zealand media looked like shipwreck survivors.
1. Australia 24 – France 30, Sydney, June 14, 1987
The original, and still the best, semifinal in the tournament’s history boasted drama, intensity, fluctuation in fortune, unexpectedness and plain brilliance.
The first ever World Cup semifinal was expected to see co-hosts Australia complete a largely untroubled victory over France to progress to the final against the other hosts, New Zealand.
The Aussies led early and often, the lead changing hands five times, desperation and exhaustion mounting by the moment, all of it leading inexorably to the defining moment at 24-24. A surging, swerving French attack saw the ball passing through 10 pairs of hands, driving first right then left before Serge Blanco, looking out on his feet, arrowed into the left corner for France’s fourth try. Blanco then reared from the floor in one of the classic images of sporting joy and triumph.
As the veteran John Reason wrote in the Sunday Telegraph: “I never thought I would live to see a game to rival the one played between the Barbarians and All Blacks in Cardiff in 1973, but this one did.”