20 Biggest Shock Results in Rugby History
What constitutes a shock?
David beating Goliath, certainly. But that’s not all.
There can be—and have been—shocks within games between sides of equal standing, too. One side can seem so superior both before kick-off and most definitely during a game as they race into a commanding position.
But momentum in the ebb and flow of a rugby match is a curious beast. It can leave a side in one instant and go flooding through the veins of their previously listless opponents just as quickly.
This list covers the spectrum of moments that have tilted the rugby world on its axis.
From unfancied lower-tier teams pulling off the unexpected to heavy favourites blowing clear winning positions.
There is also the romance of those halcyon days of "proper" rugby tours, when clubs and regions got their chance for a slice of history.
They all help weave a rich tapestry of pivotal moments in the game's past that, to no small extent, make it such a great sport to enjoy.
Here are the top 20 show-stopping shocks.
20. Romania 11-5 France, 1960
Had politics and poverty not played such a detrimental part in Romania’s history, the country's rugby team could have been the sixth member of the Six Nations in place of Italy.
Results from the 1980s and 1990s certainly suggest that was the trajectory they were on. But their rich rugby traditions go back further than that.
Their first major scalp came with an 11-5 win over France in 1960, a result that put the Oaks on the map and paved the way for further impressive wins against top European opposition.
19. South Africa 9-18 England, 1972
The Red Rose Brigade made their way to South Africa in 1972 off the back of a horrendous Five Nations campaign in which they had lost all four matches.
The English side of that era was described by Brendan Gallagher of The Telegraph as having: "Talent aplenty but no consistency and a laughable selection policy. But when they got it right, they got it very right."
Things came together in their warm-up matches as England won five from six before facing the Springboks in a one-off Test.
This was a time when touring South Africa was met with derision from much of the sporting and political world against the backdrop of apartheid. Protests such as the one depicted above were commonplace around any Springbok fixture of the era.
Facing criticism of the field and a monstrous Bok team on it, England prop Mike Burton recounted the match in The Rugby Paper:
They had huge forwards. I thought to myself: “Christ, what’s going to happen here?” We were leading something like 9-6. We were doing all right and then suddenly Alan Morley cut in off his wing, hit a perfect 45-degree angle and scored. We knew we had a real chance then, but they responded by cutting up rough.
With his fellow prop Stack Stevens off the field, Burton made do with flanker John Watkins as a makeshift front-rower, and England held on for a momentous win thanks largely to 14 points from Sam Doble.
I had to make sure my opposite number understood we were playing on our terms. And he did. We did what we had to do, he was nice and quiet after that and we got through. There were no citing officers to put you on report, it was just a jungle out there and we won.
18. Australia 6-15 Ireland, 2011
Ireland had never beaten Australia at a World Cup.
The Wallabies had broken their hearts in 1991 in Dublin with Michael Lynagh's late try and beaten them again on the same ground in pool play in 1999.
In 2003 Australia hosted the tournament and crept past the Irish once again at the pool stage. So history was heavily on the two-time winners' side when they pair came together for a fourth occasion in 2011.
This time, things turned out differently, as Ireland claimed the biggest scalp of the pool stages by turning over the Tri-Nations champions.
Declan Kidney's side comprehensively battered the Australians up front as two penalties apiece from Johnny Sexton and Ronan O'Gara, plus a Sexton drop goal sealed a 15-6 win that should have been more. Tommy Bowe almost scored a length-of-the-field interception try late on.
It was Ireland's greatest performance in their World Cup history as they went on to top the group and set up a meeting with Wales in the last eight.
They could not reach the same level against their Celtic rivals, however, and went out of the tournament, at least with a famous night in Eden Park to savour.
17. Ireland 24–28 Argentina, 1999
The 1999 World Cup was the first and last tournament to include a repechage round before sides who had lost in their pools could reach the real knockout stages.
The format pitted Ireland with the Pumas, a match that took place in the bizarre location of Lens (remember, Wales were the host nation of the 1999 tournament).
As ESPNScrum.com recalled, the Irish were supremely confident.
Ireland were favourites to win and confident, as evidenced by their resting of lock Paddy Johns and prop Peter Clohessy. Hooker Keith Wood went on record before the game, "We will win," he said. "The lads are recovered, there are no serious injuries, we are ready."
A David Humphreys drop goal for Ireland on their way as both sides relied heavily on the boot. Humprheys and Gonzalo Quesada continued to trade three-pointers until Ireland led 24-18 going into the last 15 minutes.
But the Pumas hit back with the game's only try—a well-worked score for wing Diego Albanese.
Quesada's final penalty gave the South Americans the lead. Ireland pummelled away at the Pumas' line to no avail, and Argentina had a famous win and progressed to the last eight of the World Cup for the very first time.
16. Tonga 16-11 Australia, 1973
The touring Tongans had been roundly thumped in their first Test in Australia in 1973.
But they roused themselves to overturn that result in the second encounter and record their greatest-ever result.
Wing Samiu Latu scored a well-worked first try, which was followed by a flowing move that ended with Isikele Vave touching down.
Dylan Cleaver and David Leggat of the New Zealand Herald recalled:
Tonga, and in particular fullback Valita Ma'ake, had other ideas. Ma'ake kept launching himself like an missile at Australian backs. He knocked himself out early but that only emboldened him.
Taking his lead and that of captain and No8 Kisione Mafi, the Tongans made life a misery for the hosts.
15. Wales 31-38 Samoa, 1999
Lightning struck twice for Wales when Samoa put one over on them for a second time at the Rugby World Cup. The first occasion in 1991 features later on this list.
Wales had gone into the '99 tournament riding high on a run of 11 wins under new coach Graham Henry.
Hopes were high that the New Zealander, dubbed the Great Redeemer, could lead them to glory as hosts of the showpiece and playing in their gleaming new Millennium Stadium.
Samoa, once again, had their own agenda.
A feast of running rugby ensued, with Samoa scoring five tries in a 38-31 win that overshadowed the game's other notable landmark as Neil Jenkins surpassed Michael Lynagh's world-leading points tally.
Wales were left embarrassed again.
14. Italy 34-20 Scotland, 2000
The Five Nations expanded to six when Italy were welcomed into the fold at the start of the 21st century.
The Azzurri were not fancied to do much more than prop up the inaugural table, but they shocked everyone by starting with a rousing win over Scotland at Stadio Flamino, per BBC.co.uk.
Stade Francais maestro Diego Dominguez was the architect of their greatest day with 29 points from the boot as Italy's Kiwi coach Brad Johnstone got his adopted country off to a dream start with a 34-20 win.
Gianpiero de Carli claimed the home side's only try to add gloss to the score as Scotland kicker Kenny Logan endured a nightmare from the tee with four misses.
Italy could not follow up on their tremendous start with another victory, and the Scots regained some pride with a rain-sodden win at home on the final day to deny England a Grand Slam.
13. Wales 9-15 Romania, 1988
Romania’s catalogue of wins over the establishment in Europe had, by the late 1980s, accounted for France and also Scotland in 1984. But a trip to the Arms Park in 1988 produced the best result of that decade with a 15-9 win at the home of Welsh rugby.
The Oaks' first success came on home soil in the 1983 but they back that up with victory in Cardiff five years later with a try from hooker Gheorghe Ion and the kicking exploits of fly-half Gelu Ignat seeing them home. The match would be Jonathan Davies' last in the Wales No.10 shirt before making a high-profile switch to rugby league.
The Guardian’s Andy Bull records the history of the Oaks, including the tragic decline caused by the revolution at the end of the 1980s, in this blog:
In the mid-80s, Romania really were one of the best teams in the world, and on the verge of joining the Five Nations. And then the revolution happened. Six of the national team lost their lives in the fight to overthrow Ceausescu.
Some of them died because their day jobs were with the army or the police; others, such as the legendary flanker Florica Murariu, were simply victims of the turmoil and confusion of the time. Murariu was shot dead at a roadblock, believed to have been mistaken for a terrorist by a pair of trigger-happy soldiers.
The revolution triggered a rapid decline in Romanian rugby. Shorn of state support, mourning some its leading players and increasingly irrelevant to the new society forming itself, rugby union went backwards. A win against Fiji in the 1991 World Cup marked perhaps the final occasion when the world really took notice of their team.
12. Tonga 19-14 France, 2011
Tonga notched a first major World Cup scalp when they downed France in Wellington during the pool phase of the 2011 tournament.
Kurth Morath was on song with four penalties for the Islanders for whom Sukanaivalu Hufanga scored a try.
The defeat wasn't enough to knock France out, who salvaged a bonus point through Vincent Clerc's try and still qualified as second in their group.
It perhaps provided Marc Lievremont's men the kick they needed, as they progressed all the way to the final, losing by a single point to New Zealand.
11. France 12-17 Argentina, 2007
The French are no strangers to aiming the gun at their own foot and pulling the trigger.
Perhaps this was less of a shock then that they did just that in front of their home crowd on opening night of their own World Cup.
The unfancied Pumas were third favourites in a pool section that also housed Ireland, but they upset the odds right away with a scintillating performance in Paris that rocked France.
Ignacio Corleto scored the decisive try and Argentina went on to win the group, making it all the way to the semi-finals where they lost to eventual champions South Africa.
Just to rub it in, they met France once again in the third-place play-off and beat them for a second time.
Argentina's performances in the 2007 tournament lay the seeds for their progression into rugby's top tier and their inclusion in the newly formed Rugby Championship alongside the southern hemisphere powerhouses.
If ever a result sparked such a seismic shift in rugby's balance of power, it was that balmy night in Paris.
10. Fiji 38-34 Wales, 2007
Wales needed to beat Fiji in their final pool match of the 2007 World Cup to progress to a meeting with South Africa in the last eight.
Things began well enough with dominance in the scrum and a Stephen Jones penalty, but a later miss was punished when Akapusi Qera was worked over after a huge Fijian tackle had forced a turnover.
The Islanders then went for the jugular with Vilimoni Delasau collecting his own chip to score and a third try from Kele Leawere.
But Wales regained some composure with a push-over score and further tries from Shane Williams and Gareth Thomas while the Fijians were down to 14 men. Mark Jones added a fourth Welsh try with Stephen Jones' extras making it 29-25 to the men in red.
Wales were playing fast, loose rugby, though, and Fiji were revelling in the open nature of the contest. Fly-half Nicky Little cashed in with two further penalties but then threw a wild pass that was plucked out of the air by Martyn Williams.
Wales may have thought they finally had their get-out-of-jail pass in their back pockets. But Fiji came at the again, and after Delasau was held up, prop Gareth Dewes tunnelled his way over to dump Wales out.
The result caused despair back home in Wales and cost coach Gareth Jenkins his job. It completed a miserable trio of World Cup disasters at the hands of Pacific Island nations for Wales.
9. France 20-18 New Zealand, 2007
Having effectively ejected themselves from their own stadium by coming second in their pool, hosts France faced the bizarre scenario of playing their 2007 World Cup quarter-final with the All Blacks in Wales.
They had impressed no-one with their early performances, while the All Blacks had completed their usual stroll through the pool phase.
Something was stirring in the French camp, though, and they met the Haka in their own patriotic way, lining up to face the ritual wearing T-shirts the colours of the tricolore in formation, the hirsute Sebastian Chabal snarling at the New Zealanders as they inched closer together.
With the mind games out of the way, New Zealand got down to business and went into a 13-3 half-time lead. But, just as in 1999, France emerged from their slumber to stun the favourites.
Luke McAlister was shown a yellow card and France struck with the extra man through Thierry Dusautoir's try.
A Rodney So'oialo effort regained the All Blacks' lead, but replacement No. 10 Frederic Michalak swung the match again with a break and offload to Yannick Jauzion for the decisive try.
Cue much angst among the New Zealand supporters who turned their ire towards referee Wayne Barnes amid claims the official missed a forward pass in the move.
But it mattered not. France had mugged the tournament favourites yet again.
8. Ireland Women 17-14 New Zealand Women, 2014
New Zealand's women had scooped the three previous World Cups, each time defeating England in the final in a competition that was largely regarded as a two-horse race by most onlookers.
It seemed a safe bet to assume the pair would meet for a fourth time to settle the 2014 version in France after fighting their way through the qualifying rounds.
Ireland, however, had clearly not read the script. The women in green stunned the New Zealanders in their pool with a 17-14 result that put the reigning champions out of the competition, their first defeat in a World Cup for 23 years.
The Irish went on to the final where they were beaten by England, but their victory over the Black Ferns has gone down as the greatest shock in women's World Cup history.
7. Wales 3-0 New Zealand, 1905
At the start of the 20tg century, tours were nothing like the three- or four-week operations of the modern era.
The New Zealand squad that set foot on British soil in 1905 undertook a 35-match program, winning 34 of them over a five–month period.
The one blemish was a 3-0 reverse to Wales courtesy of a Teddy Morgan try and a refereeing decision that caused some consternation, as Dylan Cleaver and David Leggatt of the New Zealand Herald explain:
One of rugby's great controversies happened that day, the try scored, or not, by Bob Deans. It was ruled out by a slow-moving referee who was well behind the play, wearing street shoes.
6. Newport 3-0 New Zealand, 1963
The weather can sometimes close even the widest of gaps in class between two sporting opponents and in doing so vastly increase the chances of an upset.
So it was on a filthy day at Rodney Parade when the travelling All Blacks arrived to play Newport. The one man the hosts feared above all on the New Zealand side was the kicking maestro Don Clarke.
The Black and Ambers pinned Clarke back with a barrage of kicks and denied him a single shot at their posts, while it was left to John Uzzell to score the game's only points with a drop goal.
A gargantuan forward effort left the tourists with no platform to play from, and Newport had their win.
Fly-half David Watkins told BBC Sport:
It was a momentous day, to defeat the best rugby nation in the world, all the schools were given holidays and there were over 25,000 people in Rodney Parade.
5. Wales 13-16 Western Samoa, 1991
The Rugby World Cup witnessed its first genuine shock in its second edition when Wales, who finished third in the previous tournament, were turned over by Western Samoa at Cardiff Arms Park in 1991.
The Pacific Islanders were a team of largely unknowns at the time, and Wales, boasting the talents of Ieuan Evans, Mark Ring and Co. were heavily fancied to secure a routine win in their pool clash.
They hadn't counted on the ferocious defence we now know the Samoans so well for. Players like Pat Lam, Apollo Perelini, Frank Bunce and Brian Lima hammered into their red-shirted opponents, and Wales quickly ran out of ideas.
To'o Vaega and Sila Vaifale scored tries, as did Evans and Arthur Jones for Wales, but Matthew Vaea out-pointed Ring in the goal-kicking stakes and Western Samoa had a famous win.
Wales limped out before the knockout stage.
4. Llanelli 9-3 New Zealand, 1972
Llanelli coach Carwyn James had already masterminded one triumph over the All Blacks when he piloted the Lions to victory in their 1971 series in New Zealand.
It was another thing entirely to expect him to coach his club side to the same remarkable feat a year later. But that's what happened at Stradey Park on October 31 when Delme Thomas captained them to a 9-3 victory that has gone down as one of the greatest upsets in rugby history.
Roy Bergiers' charge–down try after only five minutes put the men in scarlet on their way, and Phil Bennett added the rest of the points.
Thomas became a legend not only for his resolute performance in the Llanelli pack that went toe to toe with the All Black machine but also for his pre-game team talk.
Bergiers recalled his captain's words in an interview with the WalesOnline 40 years later:
He made you think of people you knew in the villages around and the army of volunteers who were responsible for keeping the club going. He pulled on history and hiraeth in equal measure and then made it very personal. It was amazing, emotionally very powerful.
3. South Africa 15-12 New Zealand, 1995
New Zealand were the hot favourites to claim a second World Cup after rampaging their way to the 1995 final where they faced hosts South Africa.
Jonah Lomu had announced himself on the world stage by running over anyone and anything in his way, including a gaggle of Englishmen in that famous semi-final in which he plundered four tries.
South Africa had been solid but far from dazzling on their route to the final. A tense, rain-soaked semi-final in Durban had gone their way only by the grace of a late disallowed try for France.
But the Boks had an ace up their sleeve, and he was wearing the No. 6 shirt.
Nelson Mandela donned a replica of skipper Francois Pienaar's jersey and sent the Johannesburg crowd wild when he appeared in team colours to greet the sides.
Whether it was pure presidential inspiration or a well-thought-out game plan by coach Kitch Christie, South Africa found a way to stifle the seemingly unstoppable threat of Lomu.
A series of gang tackles and high-pressure defence denied the big wing the chance to stretch his legs, and the match was reduced to kicks at goal.
After a nerve-shredding 80 minutes, the sides entered extra time, and the trophy was sealed with a swing of the right boot of Joel Stransky, whose drop goal completed a fairytale tournament for Pienaar, Mandela and an entire country finding its feet at the dawn of the post-apartheid era.
2. France 43-30 New Zealand, 1999
New Zealand reached the semi-finals of the 1999 World Cup where they faced a French team seemingly at sixes and sevens.
They gave no indication otherwise in the early stages of this last four encounter as Jonah Lomu carried half the team over the line for his first score and was practically waved through by Xavier Garbajosa for his second, helping the All Blacks to a 24-10 advantage.
But a combination of French flair and All Black self-destruction then turned the game on its head as France proceeded to score 33 points to seven.
Auxiliary fly-half Christophe Lamaison was perfect with the boot and also scored a try as Les Bleus dumbfounded their opponents and critics with a demonstration of everything good about their own brand of rugby.
1. Munster 12–0 New Zealand, 1978
If you want a summary of how big a deal Munster's 12-0 triumph over New Zealand was—and still is—Brendan Gallagher’s opening paragraph in the The Telegraph is a good place to start.
The 12-0 triumph over the All Blacks on Oct 31 1978 was a day which defined Munster rugby – its people and their values – inspired a West End play, beget a best-selling book and spawned a rugby religion. A story that sidesteps effortlessly between folklore and fact.
From Tom Kiernan's eerie pre-match silence to Seamus Dennison's thudding tackle on All Blacks star Stu Wilson, to the trickery of Tony Ward and the match-winning try by Christy Cantillon, everything that day was touched by Munster magic that has served to make Thomond Park the place it is today.
And all of it, on Munster's most triumphant day, was tinged with tragedy.
Captain Donal Canniffe learned after that match that his father had died of a heart attack whilst listening to the game on the radio.
Rugby is littered with tales that evoke a wide range of human emotions.
This one tops the lot.