John Kirwan’s try in the first-ever Rugby World Cup match against Italy still stands up with the best of them despite 33 years passing since that historic day in Auckland.
New Zealand’s performance had been fairly unremarkable, en route to a 70-6 victory, until the 68th minute when the powerhouse winger received the ball from the kick-off and virtually went the length of the field to score a try that lifted the nation and ensured his place in Rugby World Cup history.
“I think one of the best things about that try was that it really kicked off the World Cup and said, ‘wow, this is great, this is going to be a great tournament,” Kirwan reflected.
Kirwan sprinted and swerved past at least six defenders to bring up New Zealand’s half-century – the first time they had achieved the feat in a full-blown international; it was a moment no-one inside the stadium – or further afield – will ever forget.
Dual Rugby World Cup champion Tim Horan remembers watching the game on TV back home in Australia.
“It was my last year at school, and I was playing in the First XV, running out on weekends to 4,000 people watching our games,” he said.
“I tried my best to imitate that try in training and in games at school. It certainly made rugby capture my imagination.”
Kirwan was the only All Black to have some first-hand experience of the Azzurri players, having enjoyed a spell of club rugby in Italy with Treviso.
But he credits a punishing pre-tournament regime in the gym, rather than any insider knowledge, as the reason why he was able to run from inside his own 22 with barely a hand laid upon him.
More than 2,000 tries have been scored at Rugby World Cups, and his is still one of the most talked about.
“For me, it was really a combination of a whole lot of hard work and doing things a little bit differently,” he said.
“I was a young man and wanted to change the game. I felt I wasn’t good enough so I thought, ‘how could I become the best at what I do’?
“You’ll probably laugh at it now, but I actually went to the gym. Now everyone goes to the gym but, back then, we were still very amateur.”
The first tournament had its doubters; someone needed to grasp the ball and run with it, and Kirwan did just that.
“World Cups have just got bigger and better,” Kirwan said. “When we started out, we didn’t know what we were doing until we got to the quarter-final.
“Brian Lochore (All Blacks coach) came into the changing room and said, ‘you’ve got 100 years of tradition riding on you today and if we lose the World Cup, then you blow 100 years of tradition’.”
New Zealand returned to Eden Park just 29 days later with Lochore’s words still ringing in their ears, and they completed their mission with a 29-9 win over France in the final, the first of their three Rugby World Cup successes.