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Classic upsets in Rugby World Cup history

Classic upsets in Rugby World Cup history

Samoa’s recent upset victory over Australia has highlighted the rich history of upsets from the lower ranked teams at Rugby World Cup…

Samoa’s stunning win in Sydney whet the appetite for the titanic clashes to come in Pool D of RWC 2011 and cast the mind back to their two great RWC victories over Wales at RWC 1991 and RWC 1999. RWC is littered with upsets and smaller teams performing magnificently on Rugby’s biggest stage. 

RWC 1987 gave the world a taste of things to come. While the first Tournament to bring the world’s best teams together, Tonga pushed Wales 29-16 in New Plymouth and Zimbabwe fell by a single point to a strong Romanian side 21-20 at Eden Park.

The first of the great RWC upsets came at RWC 1991. Samoa joined the Tournament for the first time and made immediate history by beating Wales 16-13 at Cardiff Arms Park. They then went on to push eventual winners Australia 9-3, as close anyone got to the Wallabies in the Tournament.

Samoa’s fairytale push to the quarter-finals in their RWC debut highlighted the potential for RWC upsets. There were signals of global development of the Game with Italy making New Zealand fans nervous in a 31-21 struggle and Canada holding France to 19-13 in Agen before again making their mark in a 29-13 quarter-final clash against the defending RWC Champions, New Zealand.


South Africa hosted a magnificent RWC 1995 Tournament in which Rugby and Jonah Lomu showcased themselves to the world. Romania pushed the hosts in a 21-8 battle in Cape Town while in the same pool Canada held the defending World Champions, Australia, to 27-11 in Port Elizabeth.

As Rugby moved into the professional era RWC 1999 again highlighted the global nature of the Tournament. The Pacific Island teams once again made their mark against the Europeans, with Tonga defeating Italy 28-25 in Leicester with a drop goal from full back Sateki Tu’ipulotu at the death. Fiji pushed France all the way and were unlucky to go down 28-19 in Toulouse while Samoa, led by current Auckland Blues coach Pat Lam, repeated their 1991 glory with a 38-31 victory over Wales in Cardiff. The USA scored the only try conceded by the Wallabies in the whole Tournament when centre Juan Grobler crossed the Australian line at Thomond Park in Limerick.

The Pacific Islands continued their proud RWC heritage closer to home as Australia hosted RWC 2003. Samoa gave World Champions England an early scare 35-22 in Melbourne while Tonga pushed Wales 27-20 in Canberra. Canada took up the challenge and fell just short 19-14 against 6 Nations members Italy. Fiji experienced relief in struggling past USA by a single point 19-18 in Brisbane with Mike Hercus missing a heartbreaking sideline conversion in the final minute. Emotions were reversed when the Fijians led Scotland 14-6 at half-time in Sydney and 20-15 late into the match until a Scottish try three minutes from the final whistle got the Scots through 22-20.

The financial success of RWC 2003 gave the IRB the ability to implement a strong global development programme for the first time. This combined with increasing numbers of players from around the world playing professional Rugby in European and southern hemisphere competitions to close the gap between traditional and developing nations at RWC 2007. The average winning margin fell by 6 points from RWC 2003 to RWC 2007 and the number of wins by less than 10 points went from 7 to 16.

The surprises started on the opening night with Argentina beating hosts France 17-12 at the Stade de France. Georgia were held up over the line twice and unlucky not to take a memorable scalp in their 14-10 loss to Ireland before claiming their first RWC win with a 30-0 win over Namibia.

Tonga continued their love affair with the big stage by pushing eventual champions South Africa to the last minute in a 30-25 thriller in Lens. Fiji again set hearts racing in just edging Japan 35-31 before breaking Welsh RWC dreams once again 38-34 in an epic in Nantes. In the New Zealand pool Romania pushed Italy 24-18 while debutants Portugal also made the Six Nations team work to a 31-5 victory. While New Zealand comfortably won their RWC clash in Lyon, the Portuguese reserves did claim victory over New Zealand in the impromptu soccer match held on the field between the two teams at the end of the match!   

With the IRB investing $285 million in the global Game between 2009 and 2012, including $85 million in a targeted Strategic Investment Programme, where will the surprises come from this year?  Who will win the battles between Tonga, IRB Pacific Nations Cup Champions Japan and Canada in Pool A? Can Georgia or Romania claim an Argentinean, English or Scottish scalp in Pool B? Will Russia claim a win in their RWC debut against USA in New Plymouth? With four teams who have previously made RWC quarter-finals, which two teams will survive the Pool D battles between South Africa, Wales, Samoa, Fiji and Namibia?

All will be revealed from September 9….