New Zealand set standard at inaugural Rugby World Cup - Reliving RWC 1987


This was the first, the original, but clearly - long before the end - not to be the last Rugby World Cup. It had the feel of a private party, on a vastly smaller scale than the modern competition. If it was Tuesday, it must be Invercargill, but with much the same small cast of colleagues alongside you in the press box.

Being in Invercargill was a triumph for the organisers. The British unions, with their usual imagination, had wanted to confine the tournament to established Test venues. The New Zealand Rugby Union argued, and were proved right, that taking matches - particularly those involving smaller nations - off the beaten track would create greater enthusiasm than if they were played in cities already blasé about top-level sport.

Napier clearly loved hosting Canada v Tonga, a fixture then so unutterably exotic that I determined to be there the moment the fixtures were issued. A TV microphone pushed into the half-time huddle caught Canadian captain Hans de Goede, late of Cardiff, exhorting his men 'Come on boys, we're making history here'.

The Canadians were the first happy surprise. They beat the better-known Tongans 37-8, scared Ireland for an hour and then matched Wales for long periods at Invercargill - putting 14 men into a scrum close to the Welsh line - but were ultimately unable to match experienced European opposition over 80 minutes.

I shared a drink with a Canadian photographer, Pat Carr, and a couple of non-playing reserves the night before the Wales match. "We don't mind that we'll probably go out tomorrow, but we do wish that we wouldn't then have to go straight home. We'd love to stick around, " said one of the players.

For me personally, being in New Zealand was a happy fluke, created by a partner who wanted to visit her former flatmate from Timaru, and freelance work for media outlets - London Daily News, the News on Sunday, Today Sports Extra - which were as new as the World Cup, but would be gone before the next tournament in 1991.

New Zealand was a revelation. It was warm, welcoming, democratic and passionate about rugby. You didn't have to explain the difference between Welsh and English. The chap who engaged you in conversation in a half-time queue at Lancaster Park could turn out to be Lawrie Mains, former All Black full-back and future coach.

British players - still subjected to the petty, paranoid nitpicking of their unions about anything which looked like professionalism - were gobsmacked by the TV advert in which 'Andy Dalton - Farmer' endorsed motor mowers without any reference to his better known identity as All Black captain. That he got injured and hardly played doubtless struck the fundamentalists as karma.

Australia was co-host, but this was New Zealand's tournament - an impression reinforced on encountering Daily News correspondent Barrie Fairall at the third place match. "How was Oz ?", I asked. "Great, apart from there being no bloody rugby", said Barrie, who had been confined to duties with England and the single Australia group while I was cheerfully swanning around New Zealand covering a match most days.

But Australia got the semis, which proved the most memorable matches. The epic Australia v France contest, climaxed by Serge Blanco's brilliant winning score, was received ecstatically in the television room of the Windsor Hotel, a Christchurch landmark sadly since lost to the 2011 earthquake. French agents may have blown up a Greenpeace boat in Auckland Harbour not long before, but most Kiwis still wanted France to beat the Wallabies and in particular their brilliant, bombastic, heartily-disliked coach Allan Jones.

All Blacks v Wales was watched with my oldest New Zealand friend, Jamie Belich. The All Blacks were so laughably superior that he was patently embarrassed and started looking desperately for complimentary things to say about Wales - at least until Welsh lock Huw Richards was sent off, happily restoring the mickey-taking status quo.

My namesake also played in the Wales v Tonga match at Palmerston North, where the usually immaculate Malcolm Dacey twice crashed into team-mates, leaving Glenn Webbe so patently disorientated that when he embarked upon a stunning 80-yard solo try, it was probably 50-50 which way he would run.

That ranks as a vignette along with Fiji's Severo Koroduadua bearing down on the French line in the Auckland quarter-final with the ball in one hand, and squeezing so hard that it popped out a few metres short. France were run ragged, their 31-16 win coming from applied close-range musculature. Fiji coach George Simpkins was asked what the rest of the world could do for the islanders. "Come and play us," he said. They're still waiting.

But all narratives, and opponents, were subservient to the All Blacks. They looked worried for about 15 minutes, and that in the very first match of the tournament - a midweek afternoon at Eden Park which epitomised rugby's capacity for making history quietly - as they stumbled and fumbled against the Italians.

The first score, a penalty try, eased nerves and unleashed a deluge. The All Blacks scored 70, then an international record, bringing up 50 with a length-of-the-field solo kickoff return by John Kirwan. There was no subsequent let-up. The All Black pack was a dynamic, remorseless driving force whose equal has not been seen since, while Grant Fox's deliberate kicking routine imprinted itself on the memory as he landed 126 points.

"We tackled and tackled and tackled, until we couldn't tackle any more. And still they kept on coming," was Scotland skipper Colin Deans' heartfelt summary after a quarter-final in which they resisted longer than any other All Blacks victim, but still went down by 30 points.

The trophy, suitably for a tournament in which rugby union had boldly gone where it had not gone before, was lifted by Captain Kirk - David, New Zealand's scrum-half. The game, it was clear, would never be the same again.