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Winning big – the views of the eight men to have lifted the Rugby World Cup
In Rugby World Cup winners’ week, we hear the views of all eight men to have lifted the Webb Ellis Cup and what the moment meant to them.
Players of all shapes and sizes, at different points in their careers, and in a multitude of positions, have lifted the Webb Ellis Cup but greatness has been bestowed on all eight Rugby World Cup-winning captains.
From All Blacks scrum-half David Kirk at the inaugural tournament in 1987 to double-winner and fellow Kiwi Richie McCaw, all have a permanent place in rugby’s history through their induction into the World Rugby Hall of Fame.
And no doubt Siya Kolisi, the Springboks’ first black captain and leader of the triumphant RWC 2019-winning squad, will join them at a later date once he decides to hang up his boots.
Having been there and experienced the ultimate high the sport can deliver those individuals will know exactly what emotions the next captain will be going through at France 2023 when he stands there, with the widest of smiles, holding the most coveted prize in sport aloft.
Here’s what it means to those who have already achieved the feat.
A very special moment as @Springboks captain Siya Kolisi celebrates with his kids after winning Rugby World Cup 2019#ENGvRSA #RWC2019 #RWCFinal#WebbEllisCup pic.twitter.com/YElV8cBimg— Rugby World Cup (@rugbyworldcup) November 2, 2019
David Kirk, New Zealand 1987
The All Blacks scrum-half scored five tries in the inaugural tournament, including one in the final, but the thing that everyone remembers most is the sight of him victoriously kissing the trophy after his side’s 29-9 win over France in the final.
Winning was all that mattered to the Oxford University graduate.
“I think we were alive to the historic nature of that first World Cup. There were always arguments over who was the best. As we moved through to the final, we just needed to win. We were at home and focused on winning.
"We played an outstanding style of rugby," he added, looking back at a tournament where New Zealand scored 43 tries and conceded just four.
"We won big, and the reason we won big was because we were a lot better than a lot of teams because we were playing a new style of rugby that most teams hadn't caught up with.”
Nick Farr-Jones, Australia 1991
For Farr-Jones, the second successive scrum-half to captain his side to Rugby World Cup success, to do so at the home of English rugby, 12-6 against England, made the moment even more special.
"That's as good as it gets playing a grand final in London, a great city for rugby. It was a full house and Twickenham was my favourite ground, so the stars were aligned. I told all the younger players this is why we trained so hard, enjoy the moment.”
While Farr-Jones would go on to play in 10 more tests, he knew it wouldn’t get any better than this.
"I'd actually been crook on the Wednesday beforehand – I think it was a combination of all the pressure.
"I knew this was my last roll of the dice playing in a World Cup. It's only as you get further from it that you realise how fortunate you were to be in the right place and the right time to captain a World Cup team; when you realise that they only come around every four years, that you realise you're lucky enough not to die wondering about what could've been.
"Often sportspeople will say when you finally win what you've worked so hard for it feels like a bit of a letdown, and to be honest it did feel a little bit like that at the time. But the further you get from it the more you appreciate how fortunate you were."
Francois Pienaar, South Africa 1995
With all the expectation that comes as Rugby World Cup hosts, Francois Pienaar’s overriding memory as he collected the trophy from South Africa President Nelson Mandela was similar to that of Kirk before him – relief.
“You know there is so much at stake. The tension was unique because you either end that week as a world champion or not,” he said.
“The enduring memory is a feeling of absolute relief. In a Rugby World Cup final, you don’t care how you do it or who does it, you don’t care about the margin, you just want to be ahead on the scoreboard after 80 minutes. When you look up and see that, and you know nobody can take that from you, it is the most wonderful feeling.
There was also immense pride at what the 15-12 extra-time victory had done in uniting his country.
“It was insane, incredible... Not in my wildest dreams could I have imagined the impact it would have on our country.”
John Eales, Australia 1999
A totemic figure in the Wallabies second row, Eales became a Rugby World Cup winner for the second time – having also appeared in ’91, aged 21 – when Australia beat France 35-12 in Cardiff.
Caught up in the moment, Eales momentarily forgot the esteemed company he was in.
“Straight after the game, I turned to anyone who was there just to go crazy. And then I realised I was going to get the trophy from The Queen. I was filled with immense satisfaction that we had achieved what we wanted to do.
“You spend so much time over the last four years focusing on that moment, never sure that you are going to get to that moment, so when you actually get there and lift the Cup it is an affirmation that things have gone well.”
Fierce leader— Rugby World Cup (@rugbyworldcup) September 10, 2019
Rugby World Cup winner
Martin Johnson heaped praise on his team mates after a grueling #RWC2003 final pic.twitter.com/r82Kr9PYns
Martin Johnson, England 2003
Never normally one for hyperbole, the northern hemisphere’s first winning captain admits England’s 20-17 extra-time win over hosts Australia had far-reaching consequences – not just for the players and coaches involved but the travelling army of fans who saw them become world champions on a special night in Sydney.
“We had thousands of fans follow us to Sydney in 2003. I remember us creaking down the hotel stairs before a game and we’d have 3,000 people in the lobby roaring ‘COME ON ENGLAND!’ But that’s what sport’s about, the memories it creates for everyone.
"To have people telling you that particular day was the greatest of their lives is truly special.”
Like Kirk before him, Johnson decided to end his international career on the highest of highs by retiring after the final, settled by Jonny Wilkinson’s infamous drop goal.
“If you’re in a real toe-to-toe game that is ebbing and flowing, and that was in a way because either team could win it, we knew, with all due respect to the Australians, we knew we should have put it away in normal time, probably by 12 points. But we didn’t. If you get yourselves in these positions, you have to get yourself out of them, so there was huge relief that we had done it.”
John Smit, South Africa 2007
The first and only hooker to captain his side to Rugby World Cup success, Smit literally led from the front as South Africa won the tournament for a second time with a 15-6 win over England in Paris.
For him, though, it was truly a team effort.
"We have had the responsibility of carrying the hopes of a nation on our shoulders, and now we have a team that is taking the trophy back home to the nation. Dreams come true. To be able to win a World Cup, I think I'll only realise the significance in a couple of days' time.
“It's hard to let it sink in. I'm proud of every single one of the guys. There's going to be a lot of stories told as we get older, but no-one can take it away from this group. They're tough men and I think the whole country should be very proud of every single one of them.”
Richie McCaw, New Zealand 2011
New Zealand’s dream of ending their 24-year wait to win the Rugby World Cup on home soil was very nearly dashed by a brilliant effort from France, but the All Blacks held on for a tense 8-7 win.
McCaw says it was a victory for mental fortitude.
“The learnings of ‘03 and ‘07, the work we’d done in that four years, we realised it would come down to being able to produce the goods when it counted,” he says. “Hold your nerve when it could teeter either way and not freeze.”
Waiting to get his hands on the trophy almost felt as long in coming as the final whistle.
“It's a great feeling and you just don't want it to end. I was just soaking it all up as I was waiting to receive the Webb Ellis Cup. It's pretty special to be able to lift the trophy. It's awesome.”
Richie McCaw, New Zealand 2015
Knowing in his mind that he would bow out from international rugby after the 2015 tournament, McCaw made sure he savoured every moment from the 34-17 win over Australia at Twickenham, admitting it was a lot more enjoyable than the first final.
“It wasn’t like in 2011 when you were hoping for the final whistle, it was actually enjoying the last few minutes of playing in a World Cup final and enjoying the last little bit, which was a contrast to four years earlier.”
Between Rugby World Cup wins New Zealand remained at the top of the World Rugby Men’s Rankings, and McCaw says the drive for continual improvement played a big part in them retaining the Webb Ellis Cup.
"It takes a lot of effort to figure out ways to keep getting better. Steve Hansen and his crew and the senior players, we had to really drive it but that's what keeps you stimulated."
Siya Kolisi, South Africa 2019
In a heartfelt interview after South Africa’s 32-12 win over England in Yokohama, Siya Kolisi expressed how much winning the tournament meant to the country as a whole.
“I am just grateful for everything the team has been through, we have faced a lot of challenges. But the people of South Africa have got behind us, and we are so grateful to them.
“We have so many problems in our country but with a team like this – we come from different backgrounds and different races – we came together with one goal.
“I really hope we have done that for South Africa, to show that we can pull together if we want and achieve something.
“Since I have been alive, I have never seen South Africa like this.”