The Rugby World Cup is finally upon us and what an opening weekend it was! Although England’s Friday night opener and Sunday’s itinerary were solid if unspectacular affairs, sandwiched in between was the mother of all World Cup shocks.

Japan, a side that had won just one game* at the Rugby World Cup prior to Saturday, shook the international game to its core by beating the two-time champions South Africa, 34-32. The nation of Japan awoke on Sunday morning to the sight of their national rugby team on every backpage around world. Not only was it a gargantuan result for the Japanese, who now find themselves co-leaders of pool B on four points, it was also a pulsating encounter which set a benchmark the weekend’s subsequent games simply could not match.

Japan’s wondrous victory provides the perfect springboard for today’s post; a look back at previous shock results at the Rugby World Cup very few pundits, and fans alike, expected.

Australia 24-30 France (1987 semi-final) 

Serge Blanco - 1987 - Copy
Serge Blanco celebrates after a scintillating try in the corner to deny Australia a place in the final.

A curious choice you might think, given an upset in the semi-final of a World Cup seems to be stretching the definition of “shock result” but France’s victory over Australia at the inaugural World Cup should, and does, qualify.

Australia were the co-hosts alongside New Zealand and as such were expected to face off against their fierce rivals in the showpiece game. Although France were never going to be pushovers, having won the Grand Slam earlier that year, Australia were largely made up of their own Grand Slam-winning side, from three years previously. In 1984 Australia toured Britain and Ireland, completing a Grand Slam over the home nations for the first time in their history. As such Australia were heavy pre-favourites, even leaving aside their co-hosts status.

France fell behind three times during the match. Australia held leads which should have been added to, 9-0 and 15-12, but the usually reliable Michael Lynagh missed penalties which should have widened the gap. France, to their credit, never let the deficit affect them. During the final minutes of the match, Australia were ahead 24-21. France’s Didier Camberabero coolly slotted over a penalty which tied the game up and extra-time seemed to be on the cards.

Unfortunately for the Australians, this was an era when French rugby was at its most beautifully volatile. In a frenzied chaotic passage of play [see no. 2] France ran the ball from deep inside their own territory. After passing through the hands of 11 different players, Serge Blanco found the ball in his possession. He charged towards the line, right near the corner to silence the Sydney crowd and postpone Australia’s ambitions of world domination by four years.

Wales 13-16 Western Samoa (1991 pool stages) 

Welsh fans took their shock defeat to Western Samoa in good spirits, quipping after the game,
Welsh fans took their shock defeat to Western Samoa in good spirits, quipping after the game, “Thank goodness we weren’t playing all of Samoa!” [or some variant to that effect]

Just how big of an upset was Wales’s defeat to Western Samoa at the 1991 World Cup? Well, before Saturday’s result it was the undisputed number one shock result of the World Cup’s 28-year history.

Western Samoa were appearing at their first World Cup having been controversially excluded four years previously. Nine of the 16 places were filled by invite. It seems somebody at the IRB forgot to include the Samoans, despite them playing a higher standard of rugby than the likes of Canada, the United States and Italy who did participate.

The Samoans made up for lost time, living up to their billing as an aggressive tackling unit, putting the Welsh backs on their arse with some typically bone-crunching collisions. Both sides scored two tries apiece but it was the reliable boot of Mathew Vaea which sealed an infamous 16-13 victory.

An island nation of just over 2,000 players had defeated one of the most successful and proudest rugby nations on earth. Western Samoa’s remarkable run only continued with a narrow 9-3 loss to Australia before a crushing 35-12 defeat of Argentina saw them through to the quarter-finals where a heavy defeat to Gavin Hastings’s Scotland awaited them.

South Africa 15-12 New Zealand (1995 final) 

“Thank you Francois for what you have done for this country”.

It seems absurd to include a World Cup final but despite being brought back in from the cold following the abolition of Apartheid, and their status as hosts, South Africa were firm underdogs heading into the World Cup final.

New Zealand, fresh off bulldozing through Mike Catt et al in the semi-final, were raging hot favourites to lift Webb Ellis for the second time. South Africa on the other hand were somewhat fortuitous to scrape past the French in a game that, at times, more closely resembled water polo than rugby.

South Africa were buoyed prior to kick-off by the appearance of Nelson Mandela in a number 6 Springbok jersey. The Ellis Park crowd went delirious. The All Blacks were also delirious, albeit from the aftereffects of food poisoning.

It is an incident that still rankles with New Zealanders today. How it happened and whether it was deliberate sabotage is irrelevant. The fact is it happened and greatly affected New Zealand’s pre-match preparations. Under the circumstances they played magnificently. Alas in a final dominated by the fly-halves, it was Joel Stransky’s drop goal two minutes into extra-time which sealed an historic victory for South Africa.

What happened next has gone down in history. Nelson Mandela greeted his fellow number 6 Francois Pienaar and presented him with the Webb Ellis Cup and an ending worthy of Hollywood came to fruition some 14 years later.

Wales 31-38 Samoa (1999 pool stages) 

The Welsh watch the Samoans perform their version of the haka, the Siva Tau.
The Welsh watch on as the Samoans perform their version of the haka, the Siva Tau.

As New York Yankees catcher Yogi Berra once remarked, “It’s déjà vu all over again!” For Wales, eight years after their humbling defeat to Western Samoa, 1999 proved to be such an occurrence.

While Western Samoa’s 1991 victory was determined by the boot, their victory in 1999 (now as Samoa) was pure running rugby. The two sides played out an absolute belter at the brand new Millennium Stadium with Samoa running in five tries while Wales managed three of their own.

Neil Jenkins did his utmost to keep Wales in the game, slotting over four penalties and in the process overtook Michael Lynagh as international rugby’s highest scorer. That day he was second-best to Silao Leaegailesolo who converted all of Samoa’s tries, including his own, and scored a penalty to ensure another famous Samoan victory over the Welsh.

In 1991 Welsh fans were left to question what would have happened if they faced the whole of Samoa*. It only took eight years for them to find out the answer to that particular conundrum.

*[A little history lesson regarding Samoa. In 1997 Western Samoa changed its name to just Samoa. “Eastern Samoa” is actually American Samoa, an overseas territory of the United States. Unlike Samoa, it is not a sovereign nation, but its people are U.S. citizens. American Samoa opposed Samoa’s dropping of the “Western” during the ’90s owing to the fact that “Western Samoa” implies there is another chain of Samoan islands further east, i.e. American Samoa.]

Argentina 28-24 Ireland (1999 quarter-final play-off) 

Long before the near defeat to Georgia some eight years later, Lens was the sight of Irish rugby's darkest day.
Long before the near defeat to Georgia some eight years later, Lens was the sight of Irish rugby’s darkest day.

What, you may ask, is a quarter-final play-off? The 1999 Rugby World Cup was expanded to accommodate an additional four teams. There were divided up into five pools of four. This presented the problem of five runners-up which had to be whittled down to three. As such the five second-placed teams and the strongest third-place finisher faced off in three quarter-final play-offs. Mercifully they decided to just put five teams into each pool for subsequent tournaments.

Ireland finished as runners-up to Australia in pool E while Argentina finished third in pool D behind Wales and Samoa on points difference. Both were pitted against one another to compete for just one quarter-final berth.

By 1999 Ireland were beginning to shed their reputation as the whipping boys of the Five Nations and as such were expected to dispatch Argentina in Lens. The South Americans had other ideas and produced yet another upset at World Cup 1999.

David Humphreys and Gonzalo Quesada, who would finish up as the tournament’s top points scorer, traded penalties before winger Diego Albanese touched down in the corner with six minutes left to play to leave Ireland completely shattered.

France 43-31 New Zealand (1999 semi-final) 

Joy and despair as France celebrate a famous victory over the All Blacks.
Joy and despair as France celebrate a remarkable comeback victory over the All Blacks.

France, a few months removed from a Five Nations wooden spoon, were given no chance whatsoever against the All Blacks at the ’99 World Cup. What unfolded was one of the greatest games of test rugby ever played, never mind at a World Cup, and produced an almighty upset.

France did nothing to dispel such pre-match notions when they fell 24-10 behind, thanks in part to two exceptional tries from Jonah Lomu. Then, the unthinkable happened. The French hit the All Blacks for six, scoring an astounding 33 unanswered points. Their little general at ten, Christophe Lamaison scored two drop goals and two penalties to close the gap to 24-22 before three tries straight out of le manuel de français completely obliterated New Zealand’s World Cup ambitions

What is even more remarkable was the selection of Lamaison in the first place. Overlooked prior to the game, he only featured because of last-minute injury to Thomas Castaignede.

France 12-17 Argentina (2007 pool stages) 

Argentina far exceeded expectations in reaching the semi-finals, and finishing in third place.
Argentina far exceeded expectations in reaching the semi-finals, and finishing third place overall.

It was meant to be a procession for France, hosting the World Cup for the first time on their own, where they demonstrated to the world their ambitions of winning Webb Ellis. Instead it proved to be the first of two shock defeats to Argentina over the course of the six weeks.

France were simply blitzed by the sheer physicality of Argentina’s forwards, in particular their front row of Rodrigo Roncero, Mario Ledesma and Omar Hasan. David Skrela’s four penalties gave France a fighting chance but Felipe Contepomi’s equally solid kicking game was complimented by the only try of the game, from Ignacio Corleto.

Argentina failed to register a single score in the second-half but never seemed likely to relinquish their lead such was their dominance around the breakdown. They held on and ended up beating France six weeks later in the 3rd/4th place play-off and stunned 80,000 French fans into silence for a second time.

Wales 34-38 Fiji (2007 pool stages) 

Fiji celebrate a shock victory over Wales and passage to the quarter-finals.
Fiji celebrate a shock victory over Wales and passage to the quarter-finals.

Einstein once defined insanity as “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results”. By that definition, the Welsh rugby team are criminally insane. 2007 saw yet another premature World Cup exit for Wales at the hands of opposition from the South Seas. Wales, who would go on to win the Grand Slam the following year, this time lost to Fiji in a pulsating encounter in Nantes.

Fiji raced ahead from the get go, taking a 25-3 lead in just 12 minutes. Despite looking dead and buried, Wales weathered the storm and successfully orchestrated a comeback, running in four tries. Another from Martyn Williams on 73 minutes seemed to all but confirm Wales’s progression to the quarter-finals but Fiji simply refused to give up.

Four minutes from time, looshead prop Graham Dewes barreled the ball over the line but it took a nerve-shredding 90 seconds for the TMO to deem it worthy. Fiji ended a nine-game losing run against Wales and secured a first quarter-final berth since 1987, while Wales jetted home and coach Gareth Jenkins was job hunting the following afternoon.

New Zealand 18-20 France (2007 quarter-final) 

Another World Cup and another unlikely French triumph over New Zealand.
Another World Cup and another unlikely French triumph over New Zealand.

There’s a wonderful line in Father Ted that sums up New Zealand’s status as pre-favourites before each and every Rugby World Cup. Ted is after explaining to Dougal the difference between normal black socks sold to the public and those sold to priests; the former is actually dark navy. Dougal having grasped the concept (for a change), remarks, “That’s true. I thought my Uncle Tommy was wearing black socks, but when I looked at them closely, they were just very… (x9)… dark blue.

New Zealand have always been heavy pre-favourites before each World Cup, with the possible exception of 2003 in which case they were simply co-favourites alongside England. To say they were heavy favourites for France 2007 doesn’t do it justice. They were very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very heavy favourites.

After tearing the Lions a new one two years previously and having amassed the greatest points total (out of 100) for a number one side in the world rankings since its inception, it seemed to be theirs to lose.

France as is their want, didn’t give a shit about that. They proved to be the undoing of New Zealand once again and consigned the All Blacks to their earliest-ever World Cup exit. A wondrous try from Thierry Dusautoir was followed by another from Yannick Jauzion, the result of a forward pass, which only further compacted the sense of nervous disbelief among New Zealanders that they were doomed never to lift Bill again.

Australia 6-15 Ireland (2011 pool stages) 

Stephen Ferris has Will Genia wrapped up.
Stephen Ferris has poor Will Genia wrapped up.

After four cracks of the whip, including scaring the Bejaysus out of Lynagh and Campese in ’91, Ireland finally got the better of the Wallabies on the fifth time of asking.

Australia entered the tournament as the newly crowned Tri-Nations champions and were expected to perform well at the tournament. Ireland had other ideas.

While they suffered from the absence of David Pocock owing to injury, Ireland’s front five delivered one of the most dominant displays from a pack in World Cup history. At one point Stephen Ferris caught Will Genia and ball in the choke tackle, held him up as if he were a teddy bear and drove him down the pitch with relative ease.

It was a game devoid of tries but certainly not excitement. Ronan O’Gara was called upon to replaced Gordon D’Arcy. With Sexton moving to centre, the two kicked a brace of penalties each before a ROG drop goal put comfortable distance between the sides but not before a nerve-shredding final nine minutes.

France 14-19 Tonga (2011 pool stages) 

The Tongan players celebrate after humbling the French.
The Tongan players celebrate after humbling the French.

It took a while but four years ago Tonga finally joined their Pacific Island brethren in recording a shock World Cup victory. Remarkably it wasn’t the Welsh but the eventual finalists France.

Kurth Morath was instrumental for the Tongans, kicking four penalties (although he missed a further four) and successfully converted Hufanga’s try. France were simply awful but had done enough prior to the game to ensure progression from the pool. Sadly their two bonus points was enough to scrape past Tonga who had lost to Canada in their opening fixture and registered just one bonus point.

Despite this, Tonga recorded their first victory over a tier-one nation at the World Cup. France on the other hand became the first side to lost two games en route to the final and yet somehow endeared themselves to neutrals all around the world with a ballsy display in the final which nearly spoiled the Kiwi party.

*[CORRECTION: I previously stated that Japan had never won a game at the Rugby World Cup before last weekend. This was incorrect. They did, in fact, beat Zimbabwe 52-8 in Belfast at the 1991 World Cup. My apologies to everyone, most of all, to the rugby watching nation of Japan.]