England take scenic route to home final - Reliving Rugby World Cup 1991


The 1991 World Cup host nation was England, after a fashion. Among the strongest recommendations following the co-hosting of the 1987 tournament was that future competitions should be held in a single country. So of course the next one encompassed six countries, five rugby nations, four legal systems, three states and two currencies.

It created the paradox of a nominal host which, after losing the tournament opener to the All Blacks, had to win two "away" knock-out matches in order to reach the final. The quarter-final against France in Paris was played amid the most venomously intense atmosphere this side of the 1980 Five Nations match between England and Wales, and concluded with losing French coach Daniel Dubroca angrily manhandling referee David Bishop.

The semi-final against Scotland at Murrayfield was settled when Gavin Hastings, a great full-back, missed a penalty he would normally have landed even if required to incorporate a somersault and a backheel into his kicking routine.

England's scenic route to the final added to what in any case would probably have been the dominant narrative. They were two years into the Geoff Cooke-led revival, prompted not least by the shambles they had made of the 1987 World Cup.

Their press conferences had a different atmosphere to anyone else's. Others, with the occasional exception of New Zealand press pow-wows with their 'Odd Couple' coaching duo of John Hart and Grizz Wyllie, were amiably relaxed. England's media sessions felt like under-pressure candidates answering hostile questions during a hotly contested by-election.

Debate centred on the grinding safety-first style they had adopted following the devastating loss to Scotland in the 1990 Grand Slam decider at Murrayfield. Critics argued that a team deploying attacking talent like Rob Andrew, Jeremy Guscott, Chris Oti and Rory Underwood could manage a little more variety. Cooke doggedly cited England's results while skipper Will Carling said little, except where a put-down was possible.

Yet, come the final against Australia, they threw off the shackles and ran everything. The Australians, more comfortable in their own skins, picked them off with the cold-eyed efficiency they had made their trademark.

The Wallabies had dug themselves out of a hole in the quarter-final against an inspired Irish team in Dublin, producing on demand the final-play try they needed to get through. The semi-final against New Zealand, also at Lansdowne Road, offered a true World Cup curiosity - a match, perhaps the only one we have seen, in which the All Blacks were eliminated by an opponent which was simply, intrinsically much their superior.

Australia were troubled twice by England in the final. The first threat was averted by a frankly cynical deliberate knock-on by David Campese, the second by an extraordinary feat of defensive corner-flagging by a young lock named John Eales, who would go on to lift the Webb Ellis trophy as captain eight years later.

This was an age before blanket TV coverage, so players could still come to World Cups as unknown quantities. Campese was known by northern hemisphere fans from previous visits by Australia. But Eales was a novelty not only personally, but in his ability to do things usually reckoned far outside a second row's job description: defensive feats like that, kicking goals and not only not punching people but never apparently being on the receiving end.

Wales had met him a year earlier on a spectacularly unsuccessful venture to Australia, and were reminded of his peculiar talents when the two met in the pool stage. They were not so much beaten as erased, winning almost no possession as Eales dominated the line-out irrespective of put-in.

That wasn't even Wales' worst experience. They had already gone down to tournament rookies Western Samoa, captained by Peter Fatialofa, an Auckland piano mover who probably shifted concert grands one-handed, and personified by the ferocious tackling of future All Black Frank Bunce at centre.

Australia played Samoa at Pontypool, winning 9-3 on an afternoon when a combination of torrential rain and the ground's slight slope meant that playing into the wind felt more like facing the tide.

At a personal level, this tournament had a distinctly North American accent. Canada made it to the quarter-finals where they gave the All Blacks a decent run in Lille on another day of biblical deluge. The weather was no help, as All Black wing John Timu was ankle-tapped several yards from the Canadian line but aquaplaned all the way to the touchdown.

And an unusual World Cup gig, as writer for the Village Voice of New York, meant that the USA bulked rather larger than usual, not least through an engaging group of travelling fans from Morris Rugby Community, New Jersey. A last-minute airport impulse had led them to buy stars and stripes ties which got them noticed, and warmly received, wherever the Eagles played.

That included Otley - where the highlight of Italy's 30-9 win was a brilliant solo try from sadly short-lived scrum-half Ivan Francescato - and Gloucester. Kingsholm habituees came to see the All Blacks, a natural pairing of host and international visitor if there ever was one, but enjoyed a spirited Eagles effort.

Until then All Black skipper Gary Whetton's main problem had been his coaches, a distinctly unnatural pairing, and the 'Bring Back Buck' placards mourning predecessor Wayne Shelford. Kingsholm brought the fresh incubus of his opposite number Kevin Swords, a genial veteran who gave as good as he got in the line-out.