Ranking the 6 Best Matches in Rugby History
When South Africa and New Zealand went toe to toe in the deciding clash of this year’s Rugby Championship, it produced a match of the sort we haven’t seen for some time.
Bone-jarring collisions, thrilling tries and a seesaw contest that hung in the balance until the final stages, it was a contest that had everything.
But was it one of the greatest ever?
There have been some titanic struggles over the years, with last gasp winners, jaw-dropping tries and drama even the best script writers couldn’t conjure.
Whittling them down to six is a tall order, so we’ll start with honourable mentions of the matches that didn’t make the cut.
With only six to pick, there are some high profile casualties that didn’t make the cut.
In relative terms, the 1995 World Cup semi-final between New Zealand and England had none of the nail-biting tension present in my final selection, but it was remarkable for the feats of one man who announced his arrival in world rugby in devastating fashion.
Jonah Lomu’s quartet of tries demonstrated a cocktail of speed, size and strength never before seen in the game. Despite the one-sided scoreline, which also featured an outrageous 50m drop goal from All Blacks No. 8 Zinzan Brooke, this game has endured for Lomu’s display, especially in the minds of every Englishman who saw it.
England’s 2003 final win over Australia also has a claim.
If not because of the quality of rugby, it deserves a mention for the sheer pressure it was played under. Neither side could pull clear of the other, even in extra time, and when it looked as though we would see the first World Cup to be settled by a penalty competition, up popped Jonny Wilkinson on his swinger to send England to rugby Heaven.
Western Samoa’s shock win over Wales in the 1991 tournament also ranks up there with the greats for the sheer romanticism it brought to the competition. The Islanders were rank outsiders to beat Wales and yet pulled it off with a display of brutish power and a sense of adventure we now associate so readily with the Pacific Island nations.
And who can forget the Lions of 1974? In truth, their entire unbeaten tour of South Africa adds up to a strong claim for their series-clinching third Test win.
Then there is the 1973 clash between the Barbarians and New Zealand at Cardiff Arms Park, where Gareth Edwards scored what is still regarded as the greatest try in history.
6. England V Australia, Cape Town, 1995
England had ground their way out of a drab pool in South Africa to come face to face with the side who had robbed them of World Cup glory four years earlier at Twickenham.
Jack Rowell’s side, on their day, were capable of world class performances, and they needed one to dump the holders out. After a suffocating opening to the game, they struck first, with captain Will Carling finding Tony Underwood, who outstripped Damian Smith for a wonderful try.
Australia were 10 points down and England looked good value for the margin, but shortly after the interval the Wallabies drew level. An inch prefect chip from Michael Lynagh allowed Smith to leap highest between a dithering Mike Catt and Tony Underwood.
Lynagh and Rob Andrew traded two further penalties apiece as time ticked down and we looked set for a nerve-shredding 20 minutes of extra time.
But England’s pack worked a good position from a lineout some 45 metres out for Andrew to size up the sticks.
Andrew’s effort seemed to rocket skywards but took an eternity to reach the uprights. When it did, it was still rising, but it was on target, and England had revenge.
They would come a cropper a week later when they faced the awesome power of a youngster on New Zealand’s left wing who plundered four tries to put them out, but this had been England at their best to defeat their old foe in classic style.
5. Ireland V Australia, 1991, Dublin
Glorious failure. If ever a sporting contest summed up that phrase it was Ireland’s gallant effort against the world champions in waiting.
Australia boasted the likes of Michael Lynagh, Tim Horan and David Campese, the world’s best wing at the time who was, in his best form, unplayable.
He had never played Gordon Hamilton, though.
Australia led 15-12 going into the final few minutes of the World Cup quarterfinal when a rare Irish move opened up space on their left. The ball was grubbered through the Australian defence, then popped to Hamilton who loped past Campese as if he wasn’t even there.
Galloping Gordon’s 40-metre sprint ended with Lansdowne Road in pandemonium as the flanker was mobbed by players and spectators alike.
Ralph Keyes popped over the extras and Ireland were set for the semifinals. But the Wallabies had time to mount one last surge.
Moments later, Campese was worked to within inches of the line on the Aussie right, but his dive for the whitewash fell short.
He managed to spring the ball loose to Lynagh, who nipped over the line to break Irish hearts.
4. Australia V New Zealand, 1991, Lansdowne Road
David Campese reached his zenith in this game.
It was predicted to be a bitter fight to reach the World Cup final but a sublime performance from Australia capped by Campese’s genius wrenched it from the All Blacks’ grasp.
Rugby played the Southern Hemisphere way was, in 1991, akin to watching 30 men play an entirely different sport. At least it was for those of us reared on Five Nations attrition sprinkled every now and then with a dash of French flair.
So to see two sides who were capable of combining pace, power and skill with frightening physicality was captivating. Campese’s try was all about his searing pace, outstripping the entire New Zealand rearguard to skate round the outside and score.
But it was his moment of magic to create Tim Horan’s try that has gone down in history, flicking the ball over his shoulder without so much as a glance to see where his teammate was.
These were two evenly matched sides, but the man with the game-breaking ability was wearing Australia’s No. 11 shirt on the day.
3. Australia V France, 1987, Sydney
The first World Cup final had long been predicted to be fought out by Australia and New Zealand.
When France arrived at the Concord Oval to play the Wallabies in the semifinal, it seemed no one had remembered to give Les Bleus the script.
France were then as they are now, capable in equal measure of striking from anywhere to swing a match their way and of committing rugby suicide in the next breath.
On this day, the watching world witnessed the former. Two sides intent on playing expansive rugby made for a thrilling spectacle, and the lead changed hands regularly throughout the contest.
As the clock ticked down, it was 24 apiece, and Australia had a lineout deep in French territory. France pilfered the ball back and made one last roll of the dice.
The ball was swept up field and bounced perfectly into French chasing hands, support runners appearing at each tackled man’s shoulder to spirit the ball away from contact and scatter the green and gold rearguard.
The ball eventually landed in Serge Blanco’s hands, who outsprinted the Australian cover to dive in at the corner and record one of the game’s greatest ever moments of Gallic flair in a 30-24 win.
3. France V New Zealand, 1999, Twickenham
Tournament favourites New Zealand had sauntered their way through England’s pool, swatting the host nation and their other opponent with disdain.
They had comfortably seen off Scotland in the last eight and it looked like they would do the same against Five Nations wooden spoon holders for that year France in the semifinal, when they moved out to a 24-10 lead.
After an early French try from Christophe Lamaison, Jonah Lomu performed his familiar trick of carrying a battalion of Frenchmen over the line for his first try and was all but waved through for a second.
In the second half, France were transformed. Lamaison struck two drop goals and propelled his side to score 33 unanswered points.
Christophe Dominici stole away for a try to spark the All Blacks’ worst nightmare before Richard Dourthe pounced on a wonderful chip from Lamaison.
It was left to the silver-haired Phillippe Bernat-Salles to chase down a well-judged hack from the irrepressible Olivier Magne to turn the rugby world on its head once again.
1. Australia V New Zealand, Sydney, 2000
Sydney’s Olympic stadium was yet to witness the feats of Kathy Freeman, Denise Lewis and company in the XXVIIth Olympiad.
Before that, the trans-Tasman rivalry between Australia and the All Blacks gave the gleaming new arena a baptism of fire.
The Wallabies were still stacked with heroes from their 1999 World Cup triumph in Wales. New Zealand still boasted the juggernaut Jonah Lomu on the wing, and it was the visitors who raced into a 24-0 lead in the first nine minutes with tries from Tana Umaga, Christian Cullen and Pita Alatini plus an Andrew Mehrtens penalty.
A stunned 110,000-strong crowd, and no doubt the All Blacks, thought the game was dead and buried.
Back came Australia, aided by two Stirling Mortlock tries, to level the game at 24-24 before half time.
After the sides caught their breath, it was the hosts who took a slender 35-34 advantage into the dying embers of the contest after replacement hooker Jeremy Paul had barged over.
Then, Taine Randell found Lomu on the charge.
The big man burst through Stephen Larkham’s attempted tackle and teetered just the right side of the left hand touchline to seal a famous win in front of the biggest Test match audience in history.