Rugby World Cup Countdown
An enviable journey - Part 2
August 21, 2011
England's Martin Johnson lifts the Rugby World Cup following his side's 2003 triumph over Australia © 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.
In the second part of An Enviable Journey, Richards shares more of his Rugby World Cup memories.
The World Cup returned to the northern hemisphere in 1999 with Wales as hosts but matches were spread throughout England, France, Scotland and Ireland in the latest convoluted tournament. By this time Richards had begun his relationship with fledgling rugby website called Scrum.com alongside his commitments with the Financial Times.
"There was of course the Graham Henry phenomenon, but for me the story was Argentina. They were beginning to look like real contenders. They had 'Speedy' Gonzalo Quesada who had this extraordinary drawn out kicking routine. And I'm sure one of the betting companies were running a spread on how much time he would take up with kicks during each game.
"And they had an incredible game against Samoa, one of the great forgotten World Cup games, where they came back from 14 points down at Llanelli. They were one of the great stories."
Not for the first time, the final four encounters over-shadowed the main event in 1999. France's epic victory over New Zealand is widely regarded as one of the greatest performances of all-time, not just at World Cup level, but Richards was equally impressed by the semi-final that preceded it.
"Everybody remembers the French game which was extraordinary," recalled Richards. "I remember looking at the Kiwi journalists who looked absolutely shattered as if some cosmic joke had been played on them. But I also think the Australia-South Africa game the day before was a truly wonderful game of rugby. There may not have been a try, but it like two great heavyweights going at each other; it was like Ali-Frazier. South Africa were the big, slugging team and Australia were quicker than you thought."
Australia would eventually find the knockout blow but not before South Africa had played their part in the drama. "Towards the end of the game, you have arguably the greatest kick ever seen," added Richards. "Jannie de Beer lines up a kick about 40 yards from the posts but out wide on the touchline. It is seven minutes into injury time and he knows this is the kick to keep South Africa in the World Cup. It's raining, it's windy and the only think not against him is that no one expects him to get the kick. He did but then of course you have Stephen Larkham's drop goal to win what was a genuinely great game."
Richards was less impressed by the final where the Wallabies accounted for France to become the first country to have won the game's biggest prize twice. "That French team was the worst side to ever get to a World Cup Final," insisted Richards. "They had played like Gods for half an hour to book their place but looking back they were a much worse team than the England side that made the 2007 finale against South Africa. Remember, they had finished bottom of the Five Nations Championship, they had been beaten by Tonga on their summer tour and only just got past Fiji in the pool stages."
The 2003 World Cup saw the tournament grow again with fan support reaching unprecedented levels thanks largely to the organisers' highly-successful adopt-a-second-team initiative that engaged the population.
"Going up to Townsville for Fiji v Japan was an experience where the passion of the local people was really something," recalled Richards. "I think Japan has over 100 times the population of Fiji and something like 12 times the per capita gross national product but nevertheless, Fiji were seen as the big bad guys.
"Townsville was one of the few places in Australia bombed during the Second World War but they adopted the Japanese as if they were their own. The same thing happened in Toulouse four years later, everyone seems to love the Japanese at World Cups."
The media operation to support the event had also hit record levels by this time with hundreds of representatives from the UK travelling Down Under, largely fuelled by the expectation surrounding a strong England side.
"I remember the [Rupert] Murdoch papers would insult each other continuously," added Richards. "The Daily Telegraph, Murdoch's tabloid in Sydney, would come up with something rude about the English and that would be taken as a challenge by The Sun back in the UK who, thanks to the different timezone, would be given a few hours to think about an insult of their own."
England fulfilled their promise but Richards revealed there was some doubt along the way. "I remember coming out of the pool game with South Africa and some journos were saying that England weren't playing well and that they could be in trouble. But I remember writing a piece saying that it showed England could win the World Cup. They had played a great rugby nation, played badly and still won and you thought that this is a team that just knows how to win.
"There is a revisionist version of that tournament that says any idiot could have coached that England side to the World Cup and Clive Woodward's record since 2003 has been chequered but I thought what he achieved with English rugby up until 2003 was exceptional and the World Cup win was an extraordinary achievement. He really made English rugby players think, and think for themselves. They became more flexible."
The story of the World Cup so far reaches a conclusion with the 2007 tournament in France where Richards closed in on his century of matches. "Every World Cup has some great narratives and in 2007 I think it was Argentina again. For a while we thought it might be Tonga and there was also England's sheer refusal to die and their remarkable ability to make other teams play the way they wanted, but the Argentineans were terrific."
The fans made a big impression once again, most notably during that quarter-finals. "I remember a weekend in Marseille. "There was the England-Australia game that defied belief and that evening I watched the New Zealand-France game locally and was amazed when everyone stood up before the game to sing La Marseillaise. You don't really get that in England or Wales."
But that is not to say he wasn't impressed by the title-winning Springboks. "South Africa had a very efficient team, and they were no doubt the best team in the tournament and deserved to win, but there was a genuine moment of crisis, those ten minutes when Fiji really had them going. In the final there was always a sense that they could handle anything England had to offer. They could play the same way England could but could do it better."
The story of the World Cup will continue in New Zealand next month but it will do so without the now freelance Richards who as a victim of the economic climate, will have to wait to add to his century of games and wealth of memories.
"World Cups are great occasions wherever they happen and I really like New Zealand and New Zealanders," concluded Richards. "There''s a temptation to get bitter and twisted about it, and spend the next few weeks muttering darkly in front of the telly. But as the title you've chosen for these pieces shows, I should really be feeling fortunate to have been to six World Cups rather than bitter about not making it to a seventh and I think I've got to look at it in that light."
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Graham Jenkins is the Senior Editor of ESPNscrum and you can also follow him on Twitter.
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