The Rugby World Cup is just days away, with Russia and first-time hosts Japan set to get the ninth hosting of the game’s shiny showpiece under way in Tokyo on Friday.
The Brave Blossoms made a splash four years ago when they beat South Africa to spark the World Cup’s greatest ever shock, and the Far East nation will be hoping to go far again in making an impression on the international stage in hosting the spectacle.
It is the first World Cup not to be held in a traditional rugby stronghold. New Zealand, Australia, South Africa, England, Ireland, Wales, Scotland and France have all previously played host so everyone is expecting something wonderful from the ninth World Cup.
Here, we take a little stroll down memory lane and remember each of the previous eight World Cups.
⏰ WORLD CUP COUNTDOWN | A moment so amazing it has been immortalised in a statue outside Eden Park. Michael Jones dives over to score the first try of the 1987 Rugby World Cup.— All Blacks (@AllBlacks) September 13, 2019
Who do you think will score the All Blacks first try at #RWC2019? pic.twitter.com/2Cvnws8ilS
Hosts: New Zealand/Australia
Champions: New Zealand
Top points scorer: Grant Fox (New Zealand) 126
Most tries: Craig Green and John Kirwan (both New Zealand) 6
Strange to think that whereas the inaugural football World Cup took place in 1930 and the Cricket World Cup dates back to 1975, the first-ever Rugby World Cup only took place 32 years ago. Even the Rugby League World Cup has been held since 1954.
Eden Park enjoyed the honour of hosting the maiden World Cup match, New Zealand winger John Kirwan scoring from Italy’s kick-off in a 70-6 romp for the co-hosts – the margin of victory was to become a theme of their march to overall glory.
Back in the days before professionalism, there was no qualification for the tournament so it was comprised of the IRFB’s (International Rugby Football Board, now World Rugby) seven members – England, France, Ireland, Australia, New Zealand, Scotland and Wales.
The remaining nine places were filled by invited teams, Western Samoa controversially excluded despite their superior playing standard. South Africa were unable to compete due to their international sporting boycott sparked by apartheid.
The All Blacks beat France 29-9 in the final – the 20-point margin of victory was their smallest of the tournament. Wales finished a surprise third – their best-ever result – after beating co-hosts Australia 22-21 in the third-place play-off.
Hosts: England, Wales, France, Ireland, Scotland
Top points scorer: Ralph Keyes (Ireland) 68
Most tries: Jean-Baptiste Lafond (France) and David Campese (Australia) 6
The second edition will be remembered for the rise of rugby’s popularity which in itself led to a tournament filled with shocks as smaller nations roared.
There were fewer one-sided matches compared to 1987 with the World Cup’s first major shock delivered by debutants Western Samoa, who beat Wales, the third-placed team four years earlier, 16-13 in Cardiff, leading to their eventual exit at the pool stage.
Canada finished second in their pool behind France to qualify for the quarter-finals – the only time they’ve made the knockouts. Fiji, the 1987 quarter-finalists, finished bottom of Pool 4 after losing 17-15 to unfancied Romania.
The roaring success of the first World Cup saw the second edition receive increased attention and it was seen as a major global sporting event for the first time, with the hosting heading to the northern hemisphere.
Qualifying was introduced as the number of possible entrants increased from 16 nations to 33. The eight quarter-finalists from 1987 qualified automatically with the remaining eight spots contested by 25 countries.
In the match of the tournament, Australia pipped Ireland 19-18 in a thrilling quarter-final at Lansdowne Road, with a last-gasp try from Michael Lynagh. They beat reigning champions the All Blacks in the semis before overcoming England 12-6 in the final at Twickenham.
Hosts: South Africa
Champions: South Africa
Top points scorer: Thierry Lacroix (France) 112
Most tries: Jonah Lomu and Marc Ellis (both New Zealand) 7
The tournament that will be remembered for rugby transcending sport in the Rainbow Nation. South Africa, competing at their first World Cup having been banned from the first two due to apartheid, claimed a heart-warming home win.
The abiding image is the embrace shared between Francois Pienaar and president Nelson Mandela, donning a Springboks jersey and cap, presenting the Webb Ellis Cup to the South African captain.
In a closely contested final at Ellis Park, Boks fly-half Joel Stransky scored all of the host nation’s points in a 15-12 victory, including a drop goal in extra time to win the match.
It was the first major sporting event held in South Africa following the end of apartheid. They had only been readmitted to international rugby in 1992.
It was the first Rugby World Cup to be held exclusively in one country and will be remembered as the last major event of rugby union’s amateur era – two months later, the IRFB opened the sport to professionalism.
Besides South Africa’s triumph and coming together, the World Cup will be recalled for the monster impact of mammoth New Zealand winger Jonah Lomu who finished as joint top try scorer. The All Blacks demolished England 45-29 in the semi-finals, a game in which Lomu famously finished with four scores.
Top points scorer: Gonzalo Quesada (Argentina) 102
Most tries: Jonah Lomu (New Zealand) 8
Some classic encounters and Australia becoming the first team to lift the Webb Ellis Cup twice were among the highlights of the 1999 World Cup – the first to be held in the professional era.
The tournament grew to 20 teams, divided into five pools and necessitating a complicated quarter-final play-off round involving the five runners-up and best third-placed team to decide who would join the pool winners in the last eight.
The number of automatic qualification places was down to just four; Wales qualified as hosts, as did South Africa, New Zealand and France as the best three teams from ’95.
The newly-built Millennium Stadium hosted the first game and the final, in which the Wallabies overcame France 35-12 – in doing so they became the only team to win having had to qualify for the tournament.
The semi-finals produced two of the most dramatic matches in tournament history. Australia beat champions South Africa 27-21 in extra-time. The second semi-final between favourites New Zealand and underdogs France was an all-time classic, as Les Bleus overturned a 24-10 half-time deficit to claim an epic 43-31 victory and reach their second World Cup final.
Top points scorer: Jonny Wilkinson (England) 113
Most tries: Doug Howlett and Mils Muliaina (both New Zealand) 7
As we get set to enjoy the ninth Rugby World Cup, there’s arguably never been more northern hemisphere teams in with a shout of success, with England, Ireland and Wales all realistically capable of winning.
But, to date, the only World Cup won by a team from the north was England Down Under 16 years ago.
The complex pool format used in 1999 was scrapped with tradition restored; 20 teams divided into four pools of five nations, with the top two in each pool moving on to the knockout stage. It was then the largest tournament to be played and a bonus point system was implemented in pool play for the first time.
Jonny Wilkinson, arguably the greatest 10 to ever play the game, was instrumental in victory, kicking the winning drop goal in extra time to give the resplendent Red Rose a 20-17 win – the second final that had gone beyond 80 minutes.
Wilkinson was wonderful throughout but especially in the final and semi-final, during which he scored 39 of England’s 44 points. Only Jason Robinson’s try in the final punctuated the scoring from the brilliant boot of Wilkinson, who was terrific in the torrential rain of Sydney as England beat France 24-9 in the semis.
Champions: South Africa
Top points scorer: Percy Montgomery (South Africa) 105
Most tries: Bryan Habana (South Africa) 8
After blossoming in Australia, the Red Rose wilted four years later amid the chaos and controversy of Brian Ashton’s calamitous reign. No direction or leadership from Ashton, disharmony among the coaching team and players, including captain Phil Vickery, talking openly of returning home early were just a few of the problems that dogged the world champions in France.
And yet, after a torturous start, including a nervy win over amateurs the USA and a 36-0 thrashing at the hands of South Africa, they made the final. They lost 15-6, beaten for a second time by the Springboks, but it was a miracle they even got there.
On the eve of their quarter-final against Australia, a group of backs, including Wilkinson, met to devise their own strategy for that clash, as a contingency plan. Unbelievably, despite being in such turmoil, they won and then beat France in the semis to make the final.
Elsewhere, the Boks joined the Wallabies in winning their second title. Full-back Percy Montgomery top-scored with 105 points, including converting four of their five penalties in the final at the Stade de France.
Portugal, the only wholly amateur nation in France, made their World Cup debut.
Hosts: New Zealand
Champions: New Zealand
Top points scorer: Morne Steyn (South Africa) 62
Most tries: Chris Ashton (England) and Vincent Clerc (France) 6
The World Cup returned to the Land of the Long White Cloud and New Zealand’s long wait for a second title was also over after 24 years of near misses and disappointment.
A narrow 8-7 win in the final over France exorcised personal demons – having lost to Les Bleus in the 1999 semis and 2007 quarters – as well as collective ones. Since their victory at the inaugural showpiece in 1987, the All Blacks had been defeated in one final and three semi-finals.
The tournament had opened on a sour note too with damage to Stadium Christchurch caused by an earthquake just months before the World Cup, with matches set to be staged there relocated. So that, plus nearly a quarter of a century of hurt, were all put to rest when Richie McCaw lifted the Webb Ellis aloft in Auckland following a brilliant effort from a Thierry Dusautoir-inspired France – themselves fortunate to scrape by 14-man Wales in the semi-finals.
Fly-half Stephen Donald’s penalty ended up being the crucial score. That fact was made all the more remarkable in light of the fourth-choice fly-half only being called into the All Blacks’ squad two weeks before the final due to Dan Carter and Colin Slade injuries.
Aaron Cruden hyper-extending his knee just before half-time in the final resulted in Donald – a man who had been fishing for whitebait on the Waikato River a fortnight earlier – entering the fray and providing the match-winning moment.
Champions: New Zealand
Top points scorer: Nicolas Sanchez (Argentina) 97
Most tries: Julian Savea (New Zealand) 8
From World Cup failures to the force of world rugby, New Zealand became the first team to retain the Webb Ellis Cup and the most successful team in the competition’s history four years ago.
They eventually put southern hemisphere rivals Australia to the sword with a swashbuckling 34-17 triumph at Twickenham. A new record for tries in a final was set with the teams combining for five scores, surpassing the previous record of four in 1987.
Japan set the tone for a tournament full of drama and shocks on the opening weekend, overcoming South Africa 34-32 thanks to a stunning 80th minute Karne Hesketh try. A bright display in Brighton saw the Brave Blossoms record the biggest shock in World Cup history, which subsequently cascaded down.
A thrilling 28-23 win at Twickenham for Wales in a tough Pool A saw hosts England eventually eliminated at the first hurdle – the first solo hosts not to make it to the knockouts.
It was the first World Cup not to feature a northern hemisphere team beyond the quarter-finals too, with an awesome Argentina performance in the last eight earning the Pumas a pulsating 43-20 triumph over Ireland.
Tomas Francis says Wales are relishing the inevitable forward battle that awaits them in their Rugby World Cup opener against Georgia.
Wales know from experience just how tough the Georgians can be up front, surviving a major score during the 2017 autumn Tests.
A much-changed Wales team ultimately prevailed 13-6 in Cardiff, but Georgia’s set-piece excellence shone through as they pushed their opponents all the way.
“Georgia love their set-piece and that will be a good challenge, but we want to take them on and not shy away from that,” Wales prop Francis said, ahead of next Monday’s Pool D encounter in Toyota City.
“You know what’s coming. It will be about the basics.
“Georgia will want to scrum and maul, and if you shy away from that you are giving them a head-start, so we have to take them on and be confident.”
Wales’ scrummaging work came under the spotlight in recent World Cup warm-up games against England and Ireland.
Their scrum struggled to make an impression, although Francis was at the forefront of a much-needed improved display when Wales lost to Ireland in a Dublin return fixture on September 7.
All 20 teams at the World Cup in Japan will operate under a World Rugby scrummaging law amendment that was implemented this summer.
It is aimed at ending so-called “axial loading”, with the practice of front-row forwards placing their heads on to opposition players’ head or shoulders between the call of ‘bind’ and ‘set’ on scrummaging engagement now outlawed.
“With the new scrum laws, maybe we were trying to read too much into it,” Francis added.
“In the Six Nations we were very happy with the scrum, and we’ve probably been focusing on it more now that there have been a few changes and it hasn’t quite gone how we would have liked.
“Interpretations of the law can be different. We probably scaled right back to the letter of the law, but now we’ve learnt what the referees actually want.
“It’s not that they are not refereeing it well, but we’ve just learnt how it works. It always takes time when a law change works, and we are ready for that now.
“It (law amendment) just means there is no weight bearing through your head.
More than 15,000 people watched Wales’ @rugbyworldcup squad train in Kitakyushu today. Golygfeydd syfrdanol wnaeth cyfarch y tîm yn ne Japan.— Welsh Rugby Union 🏉 (@WelshRugbyUnion) September 16, 2019
Read the story behind this unique reception 🔴 https://t.co/p6UvjdiUiI pic.twitter.com/RVkzzaxm89
“It got to the stage where if you did put weight through your neck, you had to match the weight, and now you need more balance. There is more of a ‘set’ now. There is less pressure through your neck, which is what they’ve done it for.”
Exeter tighthead Francis will be an integral part of Wales’ World Cup challenge, having developed impressively from a Test rookie at the last tournament, which he arrived at with just two international appearances behind him.
He is now moving towards 50 caps, but remains modest about his achievements.
“I’ve been lucky that Gats (Wales head coach Warren Gatland) has kept on picking me,” he said.
“All you can do is your best, and Exeter have gone well, so it’s been easier to keep a good run going there and keep playing.
“I feel good for this tournament, but (fellow Wales prop) Dillon Lewis is playing well, and you never know. If you get complacent, you will lose the shirt.”
Jonny May is convinced that England have the firepower and variety in attack to sweep all before them at the Rugby World Cup.
Eddie Jones’ title contenders have engineered an average of 4.3 tries in each game this year and were the most creative side at the recent Six Nations by crossing 24 times – 10 more than nearest rivals Ireland.
As their deadliest finisher, May is the key weapon in the England arsenal, but the Leicester wing insists there are myriad threats that can be unleashed on the opposition.
Even with the tackle-busting Joe Cokanasiga and Jack Nowell carrying injuries, potentially ruling both out of the opener against Tonga on Sunday, Jones still has the likes of Anthony Watson, Elliot Daly and Manu Tuilagi at his disposal.
When asked if any other team could rival the depth of England’s attacking options, May said: “I would say not. It is nothing like I have ever been a part of.
“I look around the room at the team-mates and the talent we have and for me the belief is genuine that we can beat anybody if we are at our best. I genuinely believe we will peak at this World Cup.
“I don’t want to come across as arrogant because I am not but I generally just can’t talk up my team-mates enough.
“We have got players who can take the ball to the line and make decisions, we have got players who can run over people, we have got speed, we have got left foot options.
“Do other teams have great players? Of course they do. It will come down to who produces it on the day, who is ready for it and mentally who can handle it.
“I believe this team is ready. There are genuine reasons to believe that we can do something very special.”
Jones announces his team on Friday as England’s World Cup launches with two matches in four days, the clash with hard-tackling Tonga in Sapporo followed by a showdown against the USA in Kobe.
“This team is beyond thinking about who is the starting XV. The message from Eddie is that he will pick a team to beat that opposition on that day and everyone has a role,” May said.
“It is not about who is better than who. We are not about that on this team. There is no point.
“We are very different and we are just about being the best versions of ourselves for the team.”
Since exploding into form on last summer’s tour to South Africa, May has been an unstoppable force for England by crossing six times in seven games this year, but he would gladly sacrifice tries for a triumphant World Cup.
“It is a terrible trap to fall into, going into a game wanting to score a try or trying to score a try,” May said.
“Of course, for a winger a try is the cherry on top of the cake. I couldn’t care if I don’t score a try in the tournament.
“I go into a game focusing on my defence, my kick-chase, my high ball. Those are the things I am guaranteed to get in a game.
“If the opportunity comes to score a try, that is my role in that moment for the team. We just need to win every game.”