LONDON, 1 Oct - The sixth instalment of the Rugby World Cup rivalry between England and Australia on Saturday will make this fixture, along with New Zealand versus France, the most frequent match-up in the tournament’s history. The most dramatic and unpredictable too, perhaps.
After all, if one can win the Webb Ellis Cup in the other’s backyard, the ultimate sporting misery and joy - 1991 in England and 2003 in Australia - then surely anything is possible.
Twice, England have won with drop goals at the death; twice, Jonny Wilkinson has tormented Australia, but then twice David ‘Campo’ Campese, every English rugby fan’s favourite pantomime villain, has turned the tide for the Wallabies.
So, here is a reminder, a quick potted history of the Rugby World Cup ‘Ashes’ clashes.
1987: Australia 19 England 6 (pool stage, Sydney)
This was the teams’ first World Cup meeting and the only time they have met in the pool stages, so there was not quite the edge to the match that the subsequent all-or-nothing encounters possessed, and both ended up qualifying for the quarter-finals.
Still, it was not short of controversy as England were giving the home side all sorts of problems at 6-6 when David Campese was awarded a try, even though he had clearly lost the ball as he dived over the line. Today, the TMO would have ruled it out but the Australians took advantage, with Simon Poidevin later ploughing over for the decisive score.
1991: Australia 12 England 6 (final, Twickenham)
The hosts had ground their way to the final with dour grimness but changed mysteriously to a much more expansive approach for the final. Legend has it that they were spurred on by Campese’s taunts that he would never play for a team as boring as them, but England's players say that was a myth and that, actually, a change of tactics was needed after they had been well beaten by the Wallabies in the summer.
Either way, the new approach proved ineffective against marvellous Australian defence and the visitors were in control once Tony Daly went over for the game’s only try. Might it have been different, though, if a penalty try had been awarded to England at 12-3 down eight minutes from time when Campese deliberately knocked down a pass just as Rory Underwood was poised to collect and score? “Cynical,” growled England hooker Brian Moore, and it was Nick Farr-Jones who picked up the trophy from the Queen.
1995: England 25 Australia 22 (quarter-final, Cape Town)
The teams had not met in the four years since their Twickenham clash so this was sweet revenge for England and a personal triumph for Rob Andrew, who scored 20 points and ended his kicking duel with Michael Lynagh by landing a magnificent 45-metre drop goal in the dying seconds. The first of the World Cup’s great drop-goal dramas.
2003 (final, Sydney - England 20 Australia 17 after extra time)
“Is that all you’ve got?” sneered an Australian newspaper after Jonny Wilkinson’s metronomic kicking in an earlier match. “That’s all we needed,” was the English response after ‘Wilko’ slotted home the extra-time drop goal that remains, perhaps even beyond Joel Stransky’s 1995 winner for South Africa against New Zealand, the most famous strike in Rugby World Cup annals.
England fans’ delight was compounded when Campese, by now a pundit, carried out his promised forfeit, walking down Oxford Street in London in a sandwich board that declared: “I admit, the best team won!”
2007 (quarter-final, Marseille - England 12 Australia 10)
Wilkinson was not finished as Australia’s nemesis, his tactical kicking and four penalties, off the back of proper forward domination, proving enough to overhaul the Wallabies’ lead which, just as in the 2003 final, had been established by a Lote Tuqiri try. It meant a third straight England World Cup win over their old enemy, all carved out by three points or less.
The Rugby World Cup's most played fixtures
New Zealand v France 6
England v Australia 5 (6 on Oct 3)
Australia v Ireland 5
Australia v Wales 5 (6 on Oct 10)
England v France 5
New Zealand v Italy 5
New Zealand v Scotland 5
Samoa v South Africa 5