Rugby World Cup – 1999 Tournament
The fourth Rugby World Cup broke new ground as, for the first time, the big eight nations did not automatically qualify with only the champions, runners-up and third place playoff winners from 1995 and host nation afforded that luxury.
This meant that South Africa, New Zealand, France and Wales respectively were assured of their places in the expanded 20-team tournament with 65 nations taking part in the qualification process for the other 16 places.
Another innovation for the 1999 tournament, which also featured matches in England, France, Scotland and Ireland, was the introduction of a Répechage, a second chance for teams that had finished as runners-up in each zone.
Uruguay and Tonga were the first nations to profit from the Répechage to take their place alongside fellow qualifiers Australia, England, Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Italy, Argentina, Fiji, Romania, Canada, Namibia, Japan, Spain and the United States.
These 20 nations were split into five pools of four, a scenario that necessitated a quarter-final play-off round involving the five runners-up and best third placed team to decide who would join the Pool winners in the last eight.
The pool stages saw England and New Zealand score 101 points against Tonga and Italy respectively, while Argentina ended a run of eight straight World Cup defeats to claim their place in the quarter-final play-offs as the best third placed team.
Romania also ended their losing run, beating the USA Eagles 27-25 for their first win since the 1991 tournament, while Uruguay enjoyed a dream debut by beating fellow new boys Spain 27-15.
The first World Cup in the professional era saw defending champions South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, France and Wales top the five pools to secure the direct route to the quarter-finals.
Scotland, England, Fiji, Argentina and Ireland went into the play-offs as runners-up with Samoa the best third placed team. England proved too strong for Fiji with a 45-24 victory, while Scotland ended Samoa’s hopes of another last eight appearance 35-20.
Ireland had been expected to progress to a quarter-final at Lansdowne Road but, despite leading 21-9 midway through the second half, it was Argentina who emerged 28-24 victors to reach the quarter-finals for the first time.
Destroyed by New Zealand wing Jonah Lomu four years earlier, it was one man who would again prove England’s downfall. That man was Jannie de Beer, the Springbok fly half kicking a world record five drop goals to clinch a 44-21 victory.
The other quarter-finals saw New Zealand beat Scotland 30-18, Australia overcome Wales 24-9 – the first time the hosts had failed to reach the final – and France defeat Argentina 47-26.
Rugby World Cup 1999 truly came alive in the semi-finals with Australia needing extra-time to win a tight contest with South Africa 27-21, Stephen Larkham’s drop goal in the second period breaking the deadlock.
New Zealand were to be their expected opponents in the final, especially after establishing a 24-10 lead. However France suddenly sparked into life with 26 points in a 13-minute spell in the third quarter to emerge shock 43-31 winners.
France had reached the inaugural final in 1987 but, just as on that occasion, they simply had nothing left in the tank as Australia became the first nation to win the World Cup twice with a 35-12 triumph.
John Eales lifted the Webb Ellis Cup – together with Tim Horan and Jason Little having also played in Australia’s 1991 success – as the Wallabies retained their mantle as the only team to win the World Cup away from home.
Horan, arguably the greatest centre of his generation, was deservedly named Player of the Tournament, although De Beer and Argentina’s Golden Boot winner Gonzalo Quesada also deserve special mention.