World Cup 2007
South Africa win the carnival
Percy Montgomery waits to get his hands on the World Cup
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World Cup No. 6
September 7 - October 20, 2007
Hosts: France, with matches in Wales
The 2007 World Cup featured 20 teams, with the eight quarter-finalists from 2003 granted automatic places and the others drawn from qualifying rounds. Portugal were the only tournament debutants. The tournament comprised 48 matches held over 44 days, with games played in ten French cities as well as at Cardiff's Millennium Stadium and Edinburgh's Murrayfield.
The 20 countries were arranged into four groups of five, with representatives from Europe, Oceania, Asia, the Americas and Africa making up the colourful group line-up. The groups were contested on a league basis, with each team playing each other once. Four points were awarded for a win, two for a draw and none for a defeat. Bonus points were awarded for teams scoring more than four tries or for losing by less than seven points. The top two nations from each group progressed to the quarter-finals, with group winners playing the second ranked teams from other groups. From there the winning sides progressed to the semi-finals and then the final or third-place play-off.
France were regarded as one of the favourites on their home soil. They secured a Six Nations championship in February 2007 and came into the tournament following wins over England and Wales. If France were the pick of the northern hemisphere teams, then the usual suspects loomed from the Tri Nations. Despite controversial selection policies from South Africa and New Zealand during the Super 14 and Tri Nations, their success was all but guaranteed in the minds of most critics and fans. The Wallabies were out of form, but faced one of the easier groups in the tournament.
France took to the field following a spectacular opening ceremony for the first game against tournament dark-horses Argentina. Whatever fireworks had lit up the Stade De France before the game were eclipsed by an explosive opening performance by the Pumas, driven on by a heavyweight pack and the mercurial half-back pairing of Agustin Pichot and Juan Martin Hernandez. They stunned the home crowd with a 17-12 win. Following wins over Ireland, both teams qualified for the quarter-finals from Pool D.
South Africa tore through Group A, winning all four of their games. Their passage to the quarters included a 36-0 hammering of England and a close run 30-25 win over a heroic Tonga side. England joined South Africa in the quarters with wins over Samoa and Tonga. Pool B saw the Wallabies advance with four wins, including a crucial 32-20 victory over Wales in Cardiff. Fiji joined them in the quarter-finals following a 38-34 victory over Wales, held by many to be the game of the tournament. New Zealand powered through Group C with maximum points following big victories over Scotland and Italy. Scotland eventually joined them following a dour 18-16 victory in the pool decider against Italy.
The quarter-finals were played over the weekend of October 6 and 7. England scraped past Australia in Marseille, with four Jonny Wilkinson penalties enough to send the Wallabies home and Stephen Larkham and George Gregan into international retirement. Cardiff's Millennium Stadium hosted the second quarter-final, ironically featuring hosts France. Bernard Laporte's men downed the All Blacks 20-18 with a hugely controversial try from Yannick Jauzion that featured a big forward pass in its build up. Regardless of their complaints, the All Blacks were going home early from another World Cup. South Africa came up against a fiery Fijian side in Marseille, and found themselves level at 20-20 after an hour. The Springbok's forward power told in the end however and they eased away to a 37-20 win. Argentina continued their march with a close run 19-13 victory over Scotland in Paris. The boot of Felipe Contepomi calmed the nerves and saw the Pumas into their first World Cup semi-final.
In the first of the semis, England crushed French dreams of lifting the cup on home soil with a 15-9 win. Josh Lewsey's early try following a catastrophic error by Damien Traille was enough to send Brian Ashton's team into their second consecutive final.
South Africa then proved too much for the plucky Pumas, finally ending their adventure with a convincing 37-13 victory. Brian Habana ran in two scores for the Springboks in securing his place as the tournament's top scorer.
With Argentina having comprehensively defeated France in the third place play-off, all eyes turned to the final between England and South Africa. In front of a sold-out crowd at the Stade de France, the two sides met for the second time in the tournament. In contrast to the rudderless ship that was humbled by the Boks in the group stages, England were a more organised and dangerous beast this time round.
In a game dominated by the side's big forward packs, it was the duel between the boots of Jonny Wilkinson and Percy Montgomery that would decide the match.
Montgomery landed five penalties to Wilkinson's three, and despite the contentious decision to disallow a Mark Cueto "try" the Webb Ellis Trophy returned to South Africa.
Star of the Tournament
While Pichot and Hernandez provided a fairytale story for the Pumas and Wilkinson was the comeback kid, all eyes were on lightning fast Springbok wing Bryan Habana. Much in a similar manner to Jonah Lomu in 1995, Habana captured the imagination of fans with his explosive pace and deadly finishing skills. In the build up to the final video clips of Habana racing a cheetah were everywhere, populating news channels and email inboxes. He justified the hype by dotting down eight times during the tournament to equal Lomu's 1995 record. His individual effort against Samoa was the try of the tournament for most, but for the mercurial wing it was merely the start.
Frozen in time
While the World Cup was not short of on field fireworks and heroics, it was the amazing fan presence that lifted the 2007 tournament into position as the greatest so far. With every game played out in front of full houses, and unanimous support for the underdog nations the French public took the pool stages into new realms of carnival atmospheres and excitement. Once the action proceeded to the knockouts there were memorable nights in Marseille following England's quarter-final win and the unique sight of hundreds of French fans having their rendition of the Marseillaise answered with a 50-strong Haka on a packed Cardiff street.
Springbok fans saw their team take the trophy home, but perhaps the finest on field moment of the tournament came with Argentinean full-back Ignacio Corleto striding in to score his team's try that defeated France in the opener. The moment encapsulated the pride and passion of his team and their arrival on the world stage.