Rugby World Cup Countdown
An enviable journey - Part 1
July 23, 2011
Francois Pienaar accepts the Rugby World Cup from Nelson Mandela in 1995 © Getty Images
A few lucky journalists have worked at every Rugby World Cup, but surely none have embraced the tournament like veteran ESPNscrum columnist Huw Richards.
His work - and perhaps more importantly his passion for the game - has taken him to each of the previous six World Cups, where he has reported on 100 matches. That enviable journey has afforded him a front-row seat at the sport's showpiece event as it grew from humble beginnings to what the International Rugby Board claim is the third biggest sporting event in the world in terms of TV audience and attendance.
"I think you had a sense that the game was never going to be quite the same again and this was clearly something that was going to change rugby fundamentally. It was like being at this wonderful private party," he recalled of the first tournament in 1987, when he was among a limited few to make the trip from the UK - on this occasion for the London Daily News and News on Sunday.
"To go somewhere that was so rugby conscious was fascinating. That was so new to me as, although I am Welsh, I was brought up in England. Much more than Wales, New Zealand is, and certainly was at the time, deeply imbued in rugby."
Hammering home the sense that this was rugby country was a dominant All Blacks side that would power to the World Cup crown. "I don't think I remember a better team," Richards said. "Certainly that All Blacks pack was the best I have ever seen. They made it look like a different game to everyone else and were more professional than their rivals in every sense. And then there was the extraordinary Michael Jones who simply changed the way you play back-row rugby with his staggering athleticism."
Richards' eye was not restricted to the headline acts - far from it. "When the World Cup schedule came out there was immediately one game that I was desperate to go to," he said. "That was Tonga v Canada, which to me seemed so impossibly exotic. It has now become a very routine World Cup game but in '87 it was out of this world."
That year Richards also discovered a fondness for Fiji. "After their quarter-final defeat to France I remember their coach George Simpkins was asked by the world's media 'what do you want the world to do for you?' He simply said, 'Come and play us' and of course 24 years later Fiji are essentially still waiting."
The 1991 tournament brought with it a new outlet for Richards in the form of the Village Voice and subsequent focus on the United States' fortunes. But he was not oblivious to the pressures on hosts England.
"There was this expectation around England and the atmosphere at their press conferences was very tense," he noted.
Tension and structure memorably gave way to almost care-free running in the final with Australia, which would eventually go the way of the Wallabies. "Everyone was baffled," Richards recalled of that day in the Twickenham press box. "They [England] were terrifically gifted but appeared to lack initiative and there never appeared to be any idea that you should exercise some judgement."
Richards credits the '91 tournament for creating the problem that he believes the northern hemisphere has yet to get a handle on - the carving up of the matches to appease European neighbours. Games were staged in England, Scotland, Wales, Ireland and France.
"It lacked critical mass," he said. "If you have bits all over the place then it will never work as well as it could. I understand it was recommended that after that tournament it would be staged in one country alone but the way the voting system works means that is impossible."
The tournament's history and Richards' own recollections find another gear for the 1995 World Cup in South Africa, when he considered it a "privilege" to be in the country, by this time as the rugby correspondent for the Financial Times. Amid all the fanfare for the hosts, his interest was, not for the first time, piqued by the supporting players - on this occasion the Ivory Coast.
"Rustenburg was quite an experience," he explained. "I drove up there to see the Ivorians and was surprised by the fact they were being supported by the Boers, which I found fascinating. I thought maybe they were favouring the underdog but I think in fact it was that they were Africans and Boers really saw themselves as Africans too."
Richards also took in the tragic injury suffered by Cote d'Ivoire winger Max Brito - who was left paralysed by a tackle just three minutes into his side's clash with Tonga. Away from that horrific moment, the fortunes of the hosts were never far from the headlines - never more so than in the wake of one of the most memorable games in the history of the tournament - South Africa's semi-final victory over France.
"It is perhaps the most bizarre rugby match I have ever been to," he said of the game, which was famously preceded by local women brushing surface water off the unplayable surface. It was not only the players who had to deal with the elements, with Richards soon to discover that, "one of the other things that does not work in the rain is pen and paper."
"They should not have played it," he insisted. "But with every plane in the country sat on the tarmac at Durban airport waiting to transport everyone, players, fans, media to Jo'burg for the final, to have postponed it would have caused chaos."
Fans in South Africa also witnessed the emergence of the sport's one true global star - Jonah Lomu. The "sort of weapon that triggers non-proliferation treaties," according to Richards. But of course there was only one real story at and it would have a picture-perfect ending at Ellis Park as the Boks overcame the All Blacks in the final.
"Francois Pienaar was not a great player but that day he was," Richards said. "And [President] Mandela in Pienaar's shirt was the most marvellous piece of theatre I have ever seen.
"When he was asked what it must have been like to have 60,000 South Africans cheering his side on, to answer 'no, there wasn't 60,000, there was 43million' was something else. He had just played the game of his life but still managed to remember the wider picture, what the moment was about."
As a World Cup, Richards believes it will never be matched. "It would be very hard to match the intensity surrounding that tournament," he said. "And if you have to recreate apartheid to create that sense of occasion it is of course not worth it."
To be continued...
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Graham Jenkins is the Senior Editor of ESPNscrum and you can also follow him on Twitter.