After Australia’s semi-final victory over Argentina last Sunday, most of the talk following the game was in regard to David Pocock’s tireless display.
Pocock won four turnovers and was first to the breakdown quicker than the AA ever could manage. There was the invariable deluge of memes and jokes, with many citing as one of, if not the, greatest performance a player has produced at the Rugby World Cup. Such hyperbole got me thinking; what are the most outstanding individual performances the World Cup has seen during its brief history?
Unsurprisingly, given the nature of the position, the most common role in this list is the fly-half. However, in order to ensure parity, there are only four no. 10s who feature in this list.
10. Jannie De Beer (vs. England, 1999)
This performance is essentially “the record for the most amount of drop goals scored by an individual in one game”. Set at the quarter-final stage of the 1999 Rugby World Cup, the defending champions South Africa faced England. Despite scoring 21 points, England shipped 44 points, 34 of which were scored by Jannie de Beer. 15 of his points came from drop goals. That’s five drop goals in a single game. Whoa, Nelly!
Watching the highlights is a delight, as Joost van der Westhuizen torpedoes the ball from the ruck back to de Beer, who has so much time on his hands he looks as if he’s in his back yard. De Beer’s extraordinary exploits are somewhat tainted by the subsequent semi-final against Australia, where attempts to replicate the tactic backfired. De Beer could only manage to score one. Despite this, de Beer’s display that day is still a joy to behold and, judging by this year’s tournament, unlikely to ever be emulated.
9. Elton Flatley (vs. England, 2003)
If the 2003 final will forever be synonymous with Jonny Wilkinson, Elton Flatley will always be the forgotten man of that night.
The 2003 encounter was a titanic struggle defined by the boot of the two competing fly-halves. England won in extra-time but could well have won it when the clock went red at 80. Australia, losing 14-11, were awarded a penalty on England’s 22. Up stepped Elton Flatley, whose two previous penalties kept the Wallabies in the contest. Flatley’s nervous fixing of the tee did not help ease the anxieties of a nation but he coolly slotted the crucial kick over and the game entered its infamous 20-minute period.
On 97 minutes, Flatley, once again holding the weight of Australian expectation on his shoulders, nervelessly converted another penalty to level it up, 17-17. Three minutes later Jonny struck. Flatley was mercurial that night but Jonny’s heroics ensured he was always going to play take a lower billing. The 2003 final was Flatley’s finest hour but such was the case for Wilkinson, too.
8. David Pocock (vs. Argentina, 2015)
Only time will tell if David Pocock’s Herculean performance against Argentina will become part of the sport’s lore but in the immediate aftermath the reaction, at times verging on the ridiculous, was merited; Pocock was simply stunning.
Pocock was directly responsible for four turnovers during the game. That said it needn’t have come as a surprise. He’s produced 14 all tournament despite only playing four times. No other player has managed double figures.
Some Sunday afternoon the two best back-rows in the world will face off and it’s a terrifying prospect for New Zealanders that they’re second-best in that particular department. With Michael Hooper and Scott Fardy either side of him, Pocock has been quite simply the player of the tournament. Without Pocock, Australia are a different animal; a neutered one. Time will only swell the mythical status of his turn last Sunday.
7. Joel Stransky (vs. New Zealand, 1995)
For the countless reproduced images of Nelson Mandela shaking Francois Pienaar’s hand and presenting him with the Webb Ellis Cup, the 1995 World Cup was actually won by another man; Joel Stransky.
Stransky scored all of the Springboks’ points that day; three penalties and two drop goals. Tied at 9-9, the game went to extra-time, the first final to do so. During the additional 20, Stransky equalled Andrew Mehrtens’s penalty before slotting over the crucial drop goal which sealed victory with seven minutes left on the clock.
Stransky is by no means the forgotten man of the 1995 showpiece but it’s easy to forget that those delirious post-match presentations, which have eclipsed the game itself, were only made possible by Stransky’s faultless boot.
6. Tim Horan (vs. South Africa, 1999)
A curious choice you may think, considering Tim Horan did not score or assist a single try during the Wallabies’ 1999 semi-final defeat of South Africa, but Horan’s performance that night was nothing short of electrifying.
Part of a select group of Wallabies to have won two World Cups, Horan, a junior member in 1991, was one of the team’s leaders by 1999. He caused the Springboks headaches all night, finding tiny openings in which to burst through and, in game defined by kicking, gain valuable yardage.
Horan’s shift that night all but confirmed his coronation as player of the tournament. Despite suffering from food poisoning on the eve of the final, Horan produced another remarkable performance at 12, which saw him lift Webb Ellis for a second time.
5. David Campese (vs. New Zealand, 1991)
If 1991 was David Campese’s annus mirabilis, then the 1991 World Cup semi-final was his magnum opus.
His performance against New Zealand all but wrapped up the accolade of player of the tournament. The Wallabies mercilessly attacked the All Blacks’ defensive line and when a crack appeared, Campese’s diagonal run cut right through them and he touched down right in the corner. If the try was impressive, it wasn’t half as impressive as his blind pass over the right shoulder to Tim Horan for Australia’s second, and deciding, try.
The Wallabies went on to beat England in the final, where they were aided by Campese’s mind games which forced the English to abandon their previously successful forwards-based game, but it was Campese’s semi-final where the Wallabies were crowned champions-in-waiting.
4. Jonny Wilkinson (vs. France, 2003)
Rather like Elton Flatley’s heroics in the 2003 final, Jonny Wilkinson’s drop goal put everything that came before in the shade including arguably his greatest performance at that year’s World Cup.
The 2003 semi-final in Sydney pitted England against France, or more specifically, Jonny Wilkinson vs. Frédéric Michalak. This was the Michalak of old, of course. The, then, 21-year-old had scored 26 points in France’s demolition of Ireland in the quarters and was leading points scorer with 99, while Wilkinson was as equally instrumental to England’s World Cup ambitions. It was unsurprising then that the game was almost seen as subplot to the duel between the two 10s.
Alas, the duel never materialised. Michalak, choked, enduring a nightmare in the wet and windy conditions, scoring just once from five kicks and was eventually subbed. Wilkinson on the other hand was superb. He scored five penalties and slotted over three drop goals, scoring all 24 of England’s points, as they progressed to the final and a date with destiny. The final would dominate Wilkinson’s highlight but his semi-final display was a crucial step en route to winning.
3. Christophe Lamaison (vs. New Zealand, 1999)
The greatest comeback in Rugby World Cup history, France’s staggering defeat of New Zealand at the 1999 tournament, was orchestrated by one man, Christophe Lamaison.
Lamaison was sensational from the outset. He ripped through the New Zealand defence to score the first try of the game. When the All Blacks recovered and then raced into a 24-10 lead, Lamaison’s flawless kicking would become hugely important.
Two drop goals and two penalties in quick succession from Lamaison saw a 12-point deficit reduced to just two. From there, France blitzed the All Blacks with a scintillating style of play. 33 unanswered points from France, 28 points from the general at 10, downed the All Blacks and rounded off one of the greatest games of rugby ever played.
2. Jonah Lomu (vs. England, 1995)
What Jonah Lomu achieved in South Africa has entwined within the game’s lore that any young hotshot winger immediately draws comparisons with Lomu. George North experienced it after 2011 and Julian Savea’s endured it also after his bulldozing exploits at this year’s tournament.
Lomu was already having a wonderful debut World Cup before the semi-final against England but what he did in Cape Town that day against Will Carling and co. cemented his status as the game’s first superstar and cemented his status as a legend.
His four tries, the pick of which is the effort where he ruthlessly flattens Mike Catt en route to the try line, are still spellbinding 20 years later. It may well have been the single greatest individual display the game of rugby, never mind the World Cup, has seen but alas, Lomu can only manage no. 2 today…
1. Thierry Dusautoir (vs. New Zealand, 2011)
There could only be one player at no. 1 in my mind and that is Thierry Dusautoir and his Captain Marvel performance at the 2011 World Cup final.
France’s route to the final that year was typical of the Marc Lièvremont era. They lost by 20 points to New Zealand in the pool stages and then by five points to Tonga. The only reason they progressed was because of Tonga’s defeat to Canada and their superior number of bonus points. New Zealand were overbearing favourites to win, especially since the French had lost twice already. The French squad were also in open revolt against Lièvremont.
The comfortable win for the hosts never materialised and what followed was a war of attrition. Dusautoir was at the heart of everything France did that night. He spearheaded the charge-down on the haka, he scored France’s only try, which had the whole of New Zealand on edge, and executed 22 successful tackles.
Dusautoir’s efforts however were in vain, as the All Blacks edged the final by a single point. For his heroic defensive display, Dusautoir was named man of the match. His performance also swung the 2011 IRB International Player of the Year in his favour, beating three All Blacks and two Wallabies to the accolade.