Rugby World Cup
Nick Farr-Jones and his 1991 Rugby World Cup
Brittany Mitchell
August 27, 2015
Nick Farr-Jones and David Campese lift the Web Ellis trophy © Getty Images

As they flew out of Sydney for England in September 1991, Nick Farr-Jones and his Wallabies side left to little fanfare, but they had no idea the reception they would receive when they returned four weeks later as Rugby World Cup champions.

Only the second Rugby World Cup to be held, and still deeply entrenched as an amateur game, the Wallabies had no idea the importance the tournament would soon hold in the rugby community.

"Not at all. I think '87, certainly in Australia, there was very little hype, and it really didn't capture the imagination of the people," Farr-Jones told ESPN. "But we went over there [the United Kingdom] and we know the UK and the Irish love their rugby, and we were pleasantly surprised at how much interest there was in the game - particularly as you got down to the pointy end of the tournament.

"One thing that really did amaze us was the level of support we were receiving from home. You know back then you obviously didn't have text messages and emails, so the number of faxes we were receiving before the final was quite astounding.

"I suppose the thing that really typifies the support we got was the George Street ticker-tape parade that we got when we came back. I was really nervous that maybe only a few hundred people would turn up but they estimate that something like 120,000 people turned up that day, so it really did quite amaze us in the days of amateur rugby."

Determined to rectify their disappointing performance in the inaugural World Cup held in Australia and New Zealand in 1987, Farr-Jones entered the '91 tournament knowing it would be a wasted opportunity if his side were to return without the trophy and was certain it would spell the end of his rugby career.

Michael Lynagh (L) and Nick Farr-Jones (R) of the Wallabies pose with the Rugby World Cup during a ticker-tape parade, Sydney, Australia, November 5, 1991
Michael Lynagh and Farr-Jones pose with the Webb Ellis trophy © Getty Images

Entering the tournament as one of the favourites, the Wallabies' opening pool matches couldn't have gone any more to plan. They made easy work of Argentina and Wales and, in a hugely physical contest, took down Western Samoa.

"Yeah I think whoever goes on to win the (2015) World Cup typically won't lose a game," Farr-Jones said. "When I look back, we didn't play our best rugby; we played a lot better in 1992 than we did in 1991. But we only conceded three tries in those six matches; we conceded two tries against Argentina in the first match, which was a bit of an aberration and really had us focused on our defence; the match against Samoa was just dreadful conditions and just a terrible game and then we played very well against the Welsh, to beat them convincingly.

"We were confident, we had a job to be done; we had to prepare, had to get our minds on the job."

But it was their quarter-final match against Ireland, 'The Great Escape' as it has been dubbed, where the team really got tested and was the pivotal moment that really pushed the Wallabies into gear and showed them the level required to lift rugby's greatest prize.

"Against the Irish we had the great escape; we kicked ourselves up the butt for the way we played in that game and that really did result in our steely focus and determination," Farr-Jones said.

Few people believed the Irish could push Australia for the full 80-minutes, and certainly no one thought the match would end in such a dramatic climax.

In front of a packed out Lansdowne Road stadium, the Wallabies scored two tries to take a 15-12 lead into the final five minutes. But in what remains one of the most exciting finishes to a World Cup match, Ireland flanker Gordon Hamilton sent the home fans delirious with a long-range try to snatch an 18-15 lead. Hamilton was immediately swamped by his team-mates and eager Ireland fans raced onto the pitch, while Farr-Jones and the Wallabies looked on.

"The Irish certainly enjoy their rugby; they turned up that day not expecting to win, but they nearly saw a miracle and that's a great thing about the game - you can really get in and support your team.

"I think you've just got to block the crowd out; you're putting on the gold jersey because you've been there, done that, and you just have to have the experience to block it all out and go for the result."

Before the moment could really sink in for the Irish supporters, the Wallabies were back on the attack and Michael Lynagh stunned all when he chose to take a quick tap instead of lining up for a penalty to draw the match. Swinging the ball wide, the Wallabies made quick metres through David Campese; the winger was cut down short of the line but he managed to fling the ball back into Lynagh who crossed for a memorable, and match-winning, five-pointer.

"It was just a relief; we would have been on a plane the next day if we had lost," Farr-Jones said. "I have no doubt that I would have retired from rugby then, and there would have been a lot of cracks in the ceiling getting wider at 3 o'clock in the morning. I would have had a lot of regrets looking back on my rugby days.

"I certainly know that we had a team, both in '87 and '91, that was capable of winning a World Cup so the fact that we did get over the line in '91 was just a terrific relief. That really defined how I felt when we were able to salvage that game and get the win over the Irish."

Australia celebrate their victory, Australia v New Zealand, Rugby World Cup, Lansdowne Road, October 27, 1991
Farr-Jones believes the Wallabies win over the All Blacks was one of the best games he'd been a part of © Getty Images

Despite the dramatic result, Farr-Jones said the Wallabies were still disappointed and angry with their performance, and some tensions seemed to boil over on the training paddock the week leading into their semi-final match against the All Blacks.

"There were times during the tournament when we were very disappointed by the way we went, and it's how you respond to that and change things around, like after the way we played against Ireland. There were things that we did that resulted in our steely, focused performances against the All Blacks.

"The forwards were really pissed off with their performance against Ireland; there were a whole bunch of aspects [they were disappointed about]. So as a forward pack they decided they would meet together every afternoon, they would have their own trainings and I think it was the Thursday before the final the guys came home and I heard the guys had been in a punch up and that was music to my ears. The guys were on a hot tin roof and I knew very little would need to be said on the Saturday to make sure these guys did what they needed to do, and the forward pack was amazing that day."

A trans-Tasman showdown with New Zealand was the Wallabies' prize for their last-ditch win over Ireland; it would be the third contest between the two sides that year with the earlier games in Sydney and Auckland shared at one apiece.

"So the semi-final - it was one of the greatest games that I was ever a part of, it was only 16-6 but we played brilliantly," Farr-Jones said. "Yeah of course it's [sweeter]. South Africa was never a part of my World Cup so New Zealand was always the bench mark, so to beat them at the World Cup is of course very sweet.

"It was intense because it was sudden death. But the All Blacks did us a favour a couple months before that game. We played two matches for the Bledisloe Cup and we beat the New Zealanders fairly convincingly at the Sydney Football Stadium, but then a week or two later we went over to win the Bledisloe Cup and we lost 6-3.

"I think that loss really did us a favour, because the way we felt after that loss and having not won the Bledisloe Cup, basically it was in the fore of our minds that there was likelihood we would meet these guys later in the year at the Rugby World Cup.

"It was certainly in the fore of my mind as the captain how disappointed I was with the 6-3 loss in Auckland, to not win the Bledisloe Cup; and it really was a little bit of revenge: 'if we play these guys again, we're going to step up to the plate'."

The 10-point triumph secured the Wallabies a place in the final where they would take on tournament hosts, England, for the right to be world champions. The pressure was now well and truly on as interest in the tournament peaked.

"It was just the usual preparation for a big match, but all of a sudden you had all the journalists from around the world focused on just the two teams," Farr-Jones said. "The build-up was intense, the build-up was quite amazing.

"We were staying the outskirts of London, this place called Weybridge, so we were out of London. But we basically realised that if you win this match you achieve something you've had your mind focused on for two or three years; you lose it, you let an opportunity slip.

"It was just staying focused on the game, particularly making sure the young guys were focused and weren't getting overawed by the immenseness of the match because for a sportsperson that's as big as it gets, playing in a World Cup grand final. So just keeping your feet on the ground, not being overawed, and being focused, and just getting ready for that moment of the kick off."

Farr-Jones began to feel extra heat as the team's captain and the reality of what the win would mean back home only heightened the pre-match nerves.

"There's obviously a bit more pressure as captain, and I certainly felt that in '91 particularly leading into the final. I was little bit unwell on the Wednesday before the final and I'm sure it was because of the pressure.

"I think I was the only sober one on the Sunday after because again I had to leave the celebration that night at a big dinner and I had to go back to my hotel early because I got unwell again. I think just the pressure and just the extra of captaining and just the pressure of just making sure the guys were ready took its toll on me, but it was fine."

Wallabies captain Nick Farr-Jones lifts the Webb Ellis trophy after the Wallabies defeated England in the 1991 Rugby World Cup final, England v Australia, Rugby World Cup, Twickenham Stadium, England, November 2, 1991
Farr-Jones receives the Webb Ellis trophy from her Majesty © Getty Images

Playing the biggest game of their careers, in front of a sold out Twickenham stadium and the Queen, the Wallabies were pushed all the way by their determined hosts. Prop Tony Daly would score the only try of the match; but it was the Wallabies perseverance and unbreakable defence that saw them lift the Webb Ellis Trophy.

"In the final, we only won about 40% of possession, and the defence won the game," Farr-Jones said. "But 24 years on, people don't remember how you won the game, but that you won it.

"That's as good as it gets playing a grand final in London, a great city for rugby. It was full house and Twickenham was my favourite ground, so the stars were aligned.

"There were some added responsibilities, we knew from leaving the change rooms to kick off there was going to be 80 full minutes, so that was another challenge in itself, trying to not get the arousal level too high beforehand; having to introduce the Queen to the team beforehand, things like that. It was all a little bit different, but it was a great experience. I was a mature player and I just loved it. I told all the younger players this is why we trained so hard, enjoy the moment.

"It's interesting; it's when you get further away from it that you realise that you've probably done something fairly special for the game. We had some quiet celebrations, but it was the amateur days and we didn't realise that Australia got so excited about it until we got home. It wasn't a big deal, we realised we had done something special but it wasn't until you got further away from it how special the moment was.

"But for me it's a photo I'll always cherish, of me receiving the cup from her Majesty."

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