Rugby World Cup rookies in the spotlight
We take a look at the uncapped players who have made the grandest of entries into the test arena.
Never in the history of Rugby World Cups – and we are now approaching the 10th edition – has an opening match been as eagerly anticipated as Friday’s encounter between flamboyant hosts France and three-time champions New Zealand.
Given how they fluffed their lines as hosts at the start of the 2007 tournament in losing to Argentina, France will be determined to come out on top in what will become the most played fixture in Rugby World Cup history.
Two of the previous seven encounters were in the 1987 and 2011 finals and this one feels every bit as big. France know how vital it is to build momentum and inflicting a first-ever pool defeat on the All Blacks would certainly do that.
The tournament could not have asked for a more high-profile fixture to kick off proceedings, but has it always been that way? We take a look back at how the past nine opening matches at Rugby World Cups have impacted on the tournament.
Before the opening match of Rugby World Cup 1987 no-one really knew what to expect, and it was impossible to envisage how big the tournament would become.
Sure, there was a sense of excitement as 16 teams from all corners of the world gathered together for a rugby jamboree, but the build-up in Auckland and elsewhere was very low-key compared to today.
Thankfully, a sparkling second-half performance from the All Blacks and a brilliant solo try by John Kirwan in a 70-6 over Italy at Eden Park got everyone talking and the Rugby World Cup has developed into the third biggest sporting event in the world.
Being a Thursday afternoon kick-off, the opening fixture of RWC 1991 was unusual but the match itself was anything but remarkable. Michael Jones scored the only try in an 18-12 win for the All Blacks over England that felt more comfortable than the scoreline suggests.
Jon Webb kicked three penalties and Rob Andrew a drop goal for the hosts, while Grant Fox supplied 14 points with his trusty boot.
As defending champions, Australia were the team to beat at Rugby World Cup 1995, the first time South Africa, the host nation, were involved.
The Springboks knew they could get the nation behind them if they won, and they duly obliged with a 27-18 victory giving them the momentum they needed to go all the way.
“No one outside of South Africa really expected anything of us but because of Kitch Christie’s positivity we didn’t lack for self-belief, and we were confident everything would fall into place if we beat Australia, the defending champions, in our first game. We really dominated them on the day and that gave us an easier route to the final,” recalled centre Japie Mulder.
The Springboks famously went on to beat the All Blacks in the first final to go to extra-time, as the nation came together as one in celebration.
Argentina appeared in three successive RWC opening matches from 1999-2007, losing the first two to Wales (23-18) and Australia (24-8) before stunning France in the third. That 17-12 result in the Pumas’ favour was, beyond doubt, the Rugby World Cup opening match with the biggest impact as it paved the way for the South Americans’ entry into Super Rugby and The Rugby Championship.
Winger Diego Albanese believes the journey to the ground-breaking victory in Paris, which they repeated later in the same tournament against France in the bronze medal decider, began in Cardiff in 1999.
“When we played the first game of that World Cup against Wales, at the Millennium Stadium, that was the first time we had ever played in a packed national stadium. That’s when we started to get used to playing at that level. Before that World Cup, we had three professional rugby players in Argentina, afterwards at least half of the team went to Europe to play professionally.”
Having won only one match in the first three Rugby World Cups, Argentina followed up their narrow defeat to Wales in the opening match of RWC 1999 with wins against Samoa, Japan and then, famously, against Ireland in the quarter-final play-offs.
“People talk about the match-winning try I scored in the quarter-final play-off against Ireland, but it needed Gonzalo Quesada to kick a brilliant touchline conversion and also seven minutes at the end when we had to defend for our lives. That is what stood out for me.”
Argentina failed to progress as far as they’d have liked in Australia in 2003, narrowly losing to Ireland to miss out on the last eight.
But they set their stall out at the start of 2007 with a brilliant display against France. Felipe Contepomi kicked four penalties in a man-of-the-match performance and Ignacio Corleto scored the only try in a game where Juan Martín Hernández’s raw talent was unveiled to the world.
In truth, the opening matches of the three Rugby World Cups that followed failed to come anywhere close in terms of drama, with New Zealand (41-10 v Tonga, 2011), England (35-11 v Fiji, 2015) and Japan (30-10 v Russia, 2019) winning with relative ease.
While New Zealand used the Tonga result as a springboard to go on and win the tournament for the first time in 24 years and Japan reached the quarter-finals for the first time in history, few England fans would have anticipated that the Fiji win would be as good as it got for them.
Defeats against Wales and Australia in their next two games rendered the result of their final game against Uruguay immaterial and England became the first host team to exit the tournament at the pool stage.
Such a fate for the France team of 2023 is unthinkable and a win over the All Blacks first-up would do wonders for their confidence as they bid to put past near-misses behind them and become world champions for the first time.