If the semi finals of previous World Cups are anything to go by, then boy are we in for a treat this weekend. It is in the knockout stages when the World Cup really catches fire, but before 2003 there had never been a final which could be classed as both dramatic and great spectacle, and before 2007 there had never been a real upset in the quarter finals.
It is in the last four that we have really seen the moments which remain in the memory, which people talk about for years to come. Remember Serge Blanco’s injury time try against Australia in ’87…remember Gavin Hastings’ miss against England in ’91…remember Lomu steamrollering England in ’95…remember New Zealand choking on the irresistible French magic, and Larkham’s drop goal against South Africa in ’99…remember George Gregan gloating ‘Four more years boys, four more years’ to the beaten Kiwis in ’03. Remember.
These are the moments which have defined the World Cup and made it the spectacular global tournament we see today. It is in the hope of seeing drama such as this that we tune in to the latter stages with such expectancy and the semi-finals have never let us down yet. Perhaps we have already had our quota of the unbelievable in this tournament, and the round of 8 provided any true rugby fan with enough to keep him going for the next four years. France v England is too close to call and either result would not be too much of a shock but the eruption when these two sides meet on big occasions is always seismic. Argentina reaching the final would surely outdo anything the tournament has produced to date.
The semi finals are where the shocks happen and here is a reminder of some of these memorable occasions:
1987 – Australia v France
For 12 years, this was undisputed as the greatest World Cup match and still never fails to be mentioned in any such discussion. The French of the 1980s were a mesmerising team on their day. The back line was littered with genius in the form of Sella, Charvet, Blanco and Lagisquet while up front they possessed the grunt of Rodriguez and Dubroca. However, the tournament had been designed around a New Zealand v Australia showdown in the final and it looked likely for much of a pulsating match. But as the clock crept round to 80, France unleashed a series of attacks, keeping the ball in play for an interminable period. Eventually the ball found its way to Blanco on the left and he haired towards the corner flag, squeezing in for the winning try, possibly the finest in the World Cup to date. Not for the last time in World Cups, France folded like a deckchair in their next game but they had created an indelible memory.
1991 – Australia v New Zealand
In possibly the most evenly matched tournament so far, neither New Zealand nor Australia had set the tournament alight and had been unconvincing in their quarter finals against Canada and Ireland respectively. Indeed Australia had come within seconds of elimination. Still, New Zealand had never lost in the World Cup and they had not yet developed their habit of contracting breathing difficulties at the higher end of proceedings. The difference between the sides was a mesmerising performance from David Campese who scored one try and created another with a pass over his head to Tim Horan. He then talked the English out of the game in the final as Australia lifted the trophy for the first time. Didn’t work 4 years later though did it Davey boy? Or 12 years later? Or 16 years later for that matter?
1999 – France v New Zealand
The most extraordinary match of them all – it wasn’t just that New Zealand had led 24-10, it was the manner in which they had taken that lead. France just did not look interested, with Garbajosa almost doing himself an injury in his eagerness to get out of the way of Jonah Lomu on his way to 2 tries. Then, from absolutely nowhere and with nothing to lose, France blitzed the All Blacks who duly disintegrated. They scored 33 unanswered points in 13 minutes, inspired by some breathtaking counter attacking from Dominici, Lamaison and Bernat Salles. In no time the score had flipped to 43-24 in the French favour and, although they scored a late consolation, the shell-shocked All Blacks were praying to be put out of their misery. Not for the first time in World Cups, France folded like a deckchair in their next game but they had created another indelible memory.
2003 – Australia v New Zealand
Save for putting 142 points past the mighty Namibia, Australia had been singularly unimpressive in their own tournament. New Zealand meanwhile had taken all before them, including a convincing quarter final victory against South Africa in which Carlos Spencer was inspired. From nowhere however, Australia produced a performance of such ruthless efficiency that Justin Marshall was moved to ask his opposite number George Gregan at full time, ‘Jeez mate, where on earth did that come from?’. From early on, Spencer’s flamboyant style was stifled and from the time Stirling Mortlock intercepted a wildly optimistic miss pass and ran the length, the Aussies never surrendered control. Can anyone remember what happened in the final?
After the incredible quarter finals of last weekend, if we see anything like the drama produced by semi finals past, we can safely say that we will have been spoilt rotten.
By Stuart Peel